The research is outlined in paper The Internet of Bio-NanoThings published in the March 2015 edition of the IEEE Communications Magazine. (A copy of the paper is also available here). It introduces the paradigm of the Internet of Bio-NanoThings (IoBNT), saying it “promises to enable applications such as intra-body sensing and actuation networks, and environmental control of toxic agents and pollution.”
According to the paper, “The IoBNT stands as a paradigm-shifting concept for communication and network engineering, where novel challenges are faced to develop efficient and safe techniques for the exchange of information, interaction, and networking within the biochemical domain, while enabling an interface to the electrical domain of the Internet.”
One of the paper’s co-authors, Sasitharan Balasubramaniam, a senior research fellow at the Nano Communication Centre in the Department of Electronic and Communication Engineering at Finland’s Tampere University of Technology — led by Professor Ian F Akyildiz and Professor Yevgeni Koucheryavy — in the Department of Electronic and Communication Engineering, told IoTAustralia “The majority of this work is still in the theoretical stage, as the whole field only started about seven years ago. However, there has been small wet lab work to engineer small communication systems to show that it works. This work is in the [US] National Science Foundation project called MoNaCo [Molecular Nano-Communication Networks]. However, the project has not attempted any connectivity to the Internet just yet.”
Avoiding the dangers of nanotechnology
The paper says that IoBNT technology is an attractive alternative to pure nanotechnology that, despite being an enabler for many applications, could result in unwanted effects on health, or create pollution, because of their artificial nature.
“Bio-NanoThings promise to enable applications such as intra-body sensing and actuation networks, and environmental control of toxic agents and pollution,” the paper argues.
It envisages “a plethora of applications … enabled by the IoBNT, such as:
– intra-body sensing and actuation, where Bio-NanoThings inside the human body would collaboratively collect health-related information, transmit it to an external healthcare provider through the Internet, and execute commands from the same provider such as synthesis and release of drugs;
– intra-body connectivity control, where Bio-NanoThings would repair or prevent failures in the communications between our internal organs, such as those based on the endocrine and the nervous systems, which are at the basis of many diseases;
– environmental control and cleaning, where Bio-NanoThings deployed in the environment, such as a natural ecosystem, would check for toxic and pollutant agents, and collaboratively transform these agents through bioremediation, eg bacteria employed to clean oil spills.”
The paper envisages the development of biological equivalents to all the components of an IoT system: the control, memory, processing and power units, sensors and transceivers to communicate with the external environment.
Promising research initiatives
It then proceeds to list a number of biological research initiatives that it says are “very promising… [but] have to provide solutions to major research challenges in biotechnology and engineering before being considered as reliable tools for the realisation of Bio-NanoThings.”
Communications in the IoBNT will, the paper notes, be particularly challenging. Communications within the IoBNT will be by chemical and biological means, but at some point there must be a two-way interface to the electromagnetic world of the Internet.
In addition to these fundamental challenges to practical realisation of the IoBNT there will be other significant challenges to the creation of a viable IoBNT ecosystem, the biggest of which is likely to be security. The paper’s warning sound like the basis of the script of a dystopian science fiction movie.
The nightmare scenario of bio-cyber terrorism
“The IoBNT enabling technologies discussed in this article could pose serious security threats if handled with malicious intent,” it says. “A new type of terrorism, which we term as bio-cyber terrorism, could effectively take advantage of the numerous possibilities offered by the IoBNT to control and interact with the biological environment. For example, Bio-NanoThings could be used to access the human body, and either steal personal health-related information, or even create new diseases. Moreover, new types of viruses could be created to hack into already deployed IoBNTs.”
These concerns aside, the ultimate goal, if it can be realised, would be the interconnection of the paradigms of IoBNT, IoT and the Internet of nanothings (IoNT). Such an achievement would place demands on, big data analytics technologies that would make today’s challenges seem like child’s play.
“Besides the increase in the quantity of data, new services will need to be designed to semantically map between different types of data that IoBNT and IoNT will feed to the IoT,” the paper says. “New service discovery solutions will also be required to search deep into the biological environments and interact with engineered biological entities to actuate or collect information.”
The authors say that, despite the challenges, they “believe that the IoBNT research field, while still in its infancy, will result in a game-changer technology for the society of tomorrow. ” They make no comment on whether this will be for good or ill.