World’s first minuscule molecule-building robot paves way for molecular factories

For years science fiction writers have described a future where tiny robots are able to move about in the human body, administering treatments on a molecular level. Now that future is on the edge of reality with the development of the world’s first ‘molecular robot’: a micrometre-sized bot capable of building molecules.

Each robot is a millionth of a millimetre in size and is made up of just 150 hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon atoms: in order to match the size of a grain of salt, you would need to pile a billion billion of the robots on top of each other.

Each can be programmed chemically to perform basic tasks such as constructing molecules out of component atoms, meaning that in the future they could be used to aid medical treatments, or work in tiny molecular factories creating molecules for a host of industries.

“It is similar to the way robots are used on a car assembly line. Those robots pick up a panel and position it so that it can be riveted in the correct way to build the bodywork of a car,” said research leader Professor David Leigh, from the University of Manchester’s School of Chemistry. “So, just like the robot in the factory, our molecular version can be programmed to position and rivet components in different ways to build different products, just on a much smaller scale at a molecular level.”

Image courtesy of Stuart Jantzen, www.biocinematics.com

While regular sized robots are programmed using commands imputed through a computer, these robots are instructed using chemicals.

“The robots are assembled and operated using chemistry. This is the science of how atoms and molecules react with each other and how larger molecules are constructed from smaller ones,” explained Leigh.

“It is the same sort of process scientists use to make medicines and plastics from simple chemical building blocks. Then, once the nano-robots have been constructed, they are operated by scientists by adding chemical inputs which tell the robots what to do and when, just like a computer program.”

The robots could be used to form microsopic version of factories. Image courtesy of Nataliya Hora / Shutterstock

While the research is at an early stage, the robots could in the future be used to work in tiny factories, which could – for example – reduce demand for materials, speed up drug discovery and dramatically cut power requirements.

“Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturisation of machinery. Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible,” said Leigh.

“This is just the start but we anticipate that within 10 to 20 years molecular robots will begin to be used to build molecules and materials on assembly lines in molecular factories.”

The research will be published in Nature on Thursday.

Despite a slew of cybersecurity breaches, people still aren’t taking online security seriously

Cybersecurity breaches seem to be a constant part of modern life, with a new high-profile leak or hack happening almost every week. Despite this, however, British people still aren’t taking adequate steps to protect their data, according to findings published by Cyber Security Europe.

In a survey of over 1,000 people living in the UK, almost a quarter – 23% – admitted to regularly using either their name or date of birth as their password in online accounts – an absolute no-no in ensuring a secure account.

Furthermore, 11% – slightly more than one in ten – said that they only use one or two passwords for all their online accounts, meaning that if one were to be breached, hackers could easily gain access to the others.

Even major attacks affecting large percentages of the population don’t seem enough to prompt people to take better cybersecurity precautions, as 76% of people say they never update passwords after a major breach.

British workers are not practices adequate cybersecurity, which is putting businesses at serious risk. Image courtesy of Transport for London

This is particularly bad news for British businesses, which not only have in the past been accused of not doing enough to protect their customers from cybersecurity incidents, but which will be subject to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) from next year, meaning they could be in serious trouble if poor employee practices leave customer data exposed.

Despite this, only 16% of respondents say their workplaces have increased focus on cybersecurity since the WannaCry ransomware attack earlier this year, the most devastating attack to hit UK businesses of late.

In addition, 60% of people said they only used logins and passwords for online security at work, which given how many people use poor passwords, poses a serious security risk for companies.

“A surprising amount of people still seem oblivious to the threat posed to their personal and, in fact, business information by using their name or date of birth as their passwords,” said Bradley Maule-ffinch, director of strategy for Cyber Security Europe.

“Nowadays, this is far from being just a personal issue. We have seen a spate of prolific attacks and breaches this year alone and businesses must ensure that employees are educated about the basics such as password security.

“With the advent of Internet of Things, increasing numbers of people using their own personal devices to connect to business networks which is an ever-growing threat landscape. This could prove a costly vulnerability for organisations in the wake of GDPR.”