Tiny Tech, Big Bang
By Andy Hancock | 13 min read
Honey, we’ve shrunk the tech!
It wasn’t that long ago that computers with decent processing capabilities needed a room with reinforced floors to handle their weight. Now there are computers that are smaller than a grain of salt – IBM set the record in 2018 – and robots that measure 1.8 mm x 2 mm.
Small technology is enabling everything from ingestible robots to miniscule drones, as well as plenty more devices that sound like they were fueled by epic binge-watching of every single version of Star Trek.
Small will rule the world. Multiple factors have converged in an opportune way: the decreasing price of hardware, improved chip design, shrinking components, and the rise in data gathering that, thanks to the cloud and artificial intelligence (AI), can now be turned into business value.
That means tiny isn’t just getting tinier, it’s also getting smarter, allowing us to apply things like AI and machine learning to a larger number of business use cases.
We’ll be able to use tiny sensors and robots to gather intelligence in places where we couldn’t afford to go before or that were too dangerous – and we’ll be able to do it 24×7. The amount of data alone generated from smart, small tech will transform our analysis and management of information.
But before we focus our shrink rays on every technology in the enterprise, we need to address some roadblocks. The trifecta of sensors, power sources, and data needs to be refined for small-at-scale to be viable. There are ethics and privacy issues to consider, especially in the realm of health technology. There are supply chain and manufacturing considerations. And while small can be great, if there isn’t a profitable business outcome, it’s a failure.
And no one wants to be the elephant crammed in a tiny room.
The core values of small
One of the most important technologies that has facilitated our quest to shrink is the microelectronic mechanical systems (MEMS) sensor. Truly hitting the commercial market in the 1980s, MEMS were always designed for small. Over the past decades, they’ve gotten progressively smaller and much more sophisticated.
In 15 years, we will have both sensors and machines that are so tiny that we’ll have a hard time seeing them. This will have a huge impact on our lives.
— Dror Sharon, co-founder and CEO, Consumer Physics
Now we’re surrounded by them. They’re found in Internet of Things (IoT) devices, cars, phones, and many other applications. MEMS manufacturing has exploded to keep up with demand.
The cost has shrunk as well. Many sensors are now a fraction of their price even a few years ago. As technologies get smaller in size and price, interesting things follow. Look, for example, at how smartwatches have evolved over the years, from clunky to streamlined and from exclusive to (somewhat) cheap, capitalizing on the now commonplace bleed between consumer and enterprise technology.
How small motivates innovation
We’re only in the early stages of what is possible when it comes to tech miniaturization, says Dror Sharon, co-founder and CEO of Tel Aviv- and San Francisco-based Consumer Physics. His company has created a small, handheld microspectrometer called the SCiO. A spectrometer uses elements such as light rays or mass to judge the physical characteristics of something. Conventional devices range from gun-style handhelds to printer-sized models and bigger.
The SCiO is a shrunken-down, near-infrared spectrometer that connects to the company’s private cloud through a smartphone app. The device scans a product, and the results appear on the app. The first version was funded by a Kickstarter campaign in 2014; now it can be used to assess agricultural products, food quality control, and pharmaceutical authentication, among other things. Consumers and professionals can use it to test their food for sugar or fat content, for example, or to judge the quality of produce.
Sharon is, unsurprisingly, a fan of small.
“We haven’t seen anything yet,” he says. “In 15 years, we will have both sensors and machines that are so tiny that we’ll have a hard time seeing them. This will have a huge impact on our lives.”
How huge? Miniaturization will touch every part of our lives. Take healthcare, for example. For many people, big healthcare systems are about to be downsized – in a good way – to the “hospital of one,” with personalization across the healthcare spectrum. Expect prescriptions of personalized pharmaceuticals manufactured for individuals at an increasing rate.
An early instance of this is CAR T-cell therapy, a form of immunotherapy that uses a patient’s immune cells to treat cancer. Instead of the broad-brush approach of conventional cancer treatments, which can damage unaffected cells, these new treatments raise the possibility of extremely targeted and personalized treatments. Two CAR T-cell therapies were approved by the FDA in 2017. Neither is in widespread use yet and they are expensive, but they herald the beginning of a new era of medicine (see “Tiny health helpers”).
A chemotherapy pill by pharmaceutical Proteus Digital Health is part of a new kind of pharmaceutical. It’s a medical device coupled with drug delivery that includes a monitoring capability. After ingestion, the stomach’s gastric juices activate the pill’s biosensor, which then transmits information to a skin patch that the patient wears close to their stomach. The patch then notifies a smartphone app that that pill has been taken, and that notification can go to, for example, caretakers and physicians.
The idea is to be able to accurately monitor adherence to prescriptions. Patients not taking their medications properly, or at all, is a big, expensive problem. Patients often need more medical care down the line and may experience quality-of-life issues that can result from skipping meds, especially for chronic conditions.
But smart meds go beyond merely confirming that patients have taken their meds at the right time. They also offer the potential of more precise dosing and microdosing – just the right amount at the right time. This could help minimize the side effects, whether merely annoying or life threatening, that often accompany beneficial drugs.
The pills also have the potential to become system sentinels, monitoring gut health over the long term, for example.
Tiny health helpers
Small tech is bringing a new level of precision to medicine.
One of the biggest impacts of tech miniaturization is in medicine, where several revolutionary developments are already about to appear in doctors’ offices worldwide.
- Lung and heart health: A 2 mm2 microsensor chip can capture even faint sounds from hearts and lungs to detect likely health problems.
- Blood health: A nano device developed by researchers can quickly detect and isolate bacteria in blood, which is ideal for rapid-response in hospitals and clinical settings. Tested on E. coli samples, the device removed 86% of the germs.
- Bot specialists: Microsurgical robots that perform super microsurgery – reconnecting tiny vessels between 0.3 and 0.8 mm – are now being trialed on humans. Early results point to faster, more accurate surgeries.
Though healthcare is getting small the fastest, innovations that are still in research and development (R&D) labs have a good chance of taking miniaturization to the next level across many other industries. These include UltraSense’s mini sensor, which can turn any surface into a touch screen. SunBOT uses nanotechnology to mimic sunflowers’ ability to direct toward the sun. SunBOT could be used to improve solar technology, which currently has the disadvantage of solar cells being fixed so they only harvest solar energy for part of the day.
Beyond MEMS are NEMS – nano-electromechanical systems – such as the one in KTH’s tiny accelerometer. NEMS could be used in everything from smartphones to wearables. In the growing field of microfluidics, NIST researchers have developed a super-slow method of delivering fluids: as little as 10 billionths of a liter per minute. This is a very promising tiny tech for situations that call for tiny and exact fluids delivery, like precision drug delivery.
In the cute and useful category is the solar-powered RoboBee X-Wing. The 259 mg device is so light that it can land on a leaf. Also, ant-sized robots that are controlled through vibration could possibly be used inside the human body for healthcare.
Big Data powers small devices
Business value comes from consuming, producing, and deriving meaning from data, whether we’re talking about mini-manufacturing or personalized medicine. In other words, small has little meaning if it can’t generate Big Data.
Indeed, the vast quantities of data that will be generated by small tech will be the tipping point that brings the issues of data privacy, security, and ethics to a head. The good news for businesses is that people are very open to trading their data if they know what they will get in return and how the data will be used.
In other words, data collection and use transparency will become ever more important – especially in healthcare, given that we will literally be swallowing surveillance devices.
We need to study the ethics of small and ensure that we have control, traceability, and transparency for small tech’s outcomes. Small will make life better but will also create its own problems, and we need to be prepared for those possibilities.
Big issues for small tech
No one ever said being small is easy.
The tech might be small, but the potential issues aren't. Here are some considerations to think about before we start swallowing tiny robots.
- Privacy: There’s no getting away from privacy considerations these days, and nothing is quite as invasive as something we eat. Whether it’s drugs, medical bots, or implantable devices, small tech takes privacy down to the molecular level. “We’re used to seeing and feeling and touching, and, well, what if we can’t see it?” asks Consumer Physics’ Sharon. “There are ethical questions, I think, that come with miniaturization, and some people are more aware of that than others.”
- Security: The increasing demand for mini-tech security is why we’re now seeing advanced security for the IoT. These are technologies that are designed to secure data all the way from the enterprise level down to the sensors through little kernels of software on the sensors themselves, which allow data verification and true edge processing.
- Maintenance: Small tech needs to be tough enough to last, or enterprises could end up spending huge amounts of money on maintenance.
- Growing pains: If your main concern is a small form factor, it’s easy to avoid building in wiggle room that might be needed later for powering up, such as more data capacity. Just because things are small doesn’t mean they should be disposable.
- The Goldilocks conundrum: When is small just not right? When the functionality is negatively impacted, says Sharon. “At some point, they become useless for us as humans; they’re too small,” he says. “Technology companies will need to adapt to the fact that in the end it might be somebody with chubby fingers using them and who can’t handle these devices.”
- Fragility: Microelectronics can be very fragile and difficult to repair. In these cases, companies need to decide whether to make a product sturdier, which is to say more expensive, or larger, or adapt their warranty programs.
- The unavoidable: Sometimes small unavoidably gets in its own way. For example, autonomous and assisted driving vehicles use small cameras to monitor their environments, which means a speck of dirt or a scratch has a much bigger impact, requiring a mechanism to protect the lens.
Mini for me
Mini tech will finally enable true personalization, as well as make it cost effective and efficient. The obvious business benefit is lack of waste; there won’t be as much bulk in landfills. For healthcare, there will be a reduction in medical errors, which will create enormous savings in the healthcare supply chain.
Getting to personalization nirvana will be a challenge, however. The manufacturing shop floor must be redesigned and reconfigured to make customized batches of small products with minimal lag in between. That will take an enormous adjustment for most industries because we’ve designed our supply chains for large quantities of much bigger things produced at the highest-possible speeds. But the market, eventually, will demand it.
This will call for machines that are more flexible and IoT-driven while still compliant with security regulations. That’s why enterprises need to begin planning for technology, physical space, and people who can manage the move-to-small processes.
Probably the biggest barrier for small tech right now is power. We need power generation and storage solutions that are cost effective, last a long time, and are environmentally sound. Miniaturized technology calls for power sources that provide consistent, long-term energy. No one wants their ingestible bot to die for lack of energy.
To make sensors completely independent, we need a big advance in power, says Donald Sadoway, professor in the department of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who focuses on environmentally sound electrochemistry.
The lithium-ion battery, which was the leap forward in portable power that enabled such innovations as cell phones in the 1990s, has yet to be matched for our current, ever-growing needs. Lithium-ion batteries can also overheat and sometimes burst into flames; there have been several well-publicized cases of smartphones combusting (and expensive manufacturer recalls).
Blockchain's Energy Crisis
Advanced technology, especially blockchain, can be a power hog.
What we’ve had so far is incremental improvements on the lithium-ion battery, says Sadoway, when what we need is a radical innovation.
“We really need a quantum improvement in performance over lithium-ion,” he says. Drones are limited by battery performance, as are electric cars, which, Sadoway predicts, “will hit a plateau very, very soon.”
Added to the scientific difficulty is the need for new batteries to be not only much more powerful but also rechargeable. Hopefully, we’ll hit a sweet spot of efficient energy usage, strong power generation, and compact energy storage in the future. Research may also reveal self-powering sensors that don’t need external juice at all.
But don’t look for solutions from within the existing power structure, says Sadoway. “I guarantee you, the lithium-ion producers are not going to give us the next-step increase in performance,” he predicts. “That’s going to come from the inventors, the people at the universities that are free thinking and have the audacity to try something different.”
In fact, the co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, John Goodenough, now 97 and co-winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that innovation, is still working on battery technology at the University of Texas at Austin. He and a co-researcher have created a new type of lithium battery that uses glass, which promises to be safer, charge quicker, and be more environmentally sound than earlier rechargeable lithium battery iterations.
But wherever the next step forward comes from, now is the time to make big plans for our small future. With the ascendancy of the IoT, robotics, AI, Big Data, and cloud computing, there is extraordinary pressure for a big bang of tiny tech to disrupt business – everything from autonomous vehicles to healthcare monitoring to robotic agriculture.
“There are so many people working on so many things, just an explosion of innovation,” says Sharon. “I’m super bullish. I think it’s one of those trends that’s not going to stop anytime soon.”
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