Scientists Create Shape-Changing, Synthetic 'Octopus' Skin for Robots

Thursday, 12 October 2017 - 7:44PM
Technology
Robotics
Weird Science
Thursday, 12 October 2017 - 7:44PM
Scientists Create Shape-Changing, Synthetic 'Octopus' Skin for Robots
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Perhaps you've seen an absolutely terrifying ability that an octopus has, which involves squeezing their entire rubbery bodies through tiny gaps in order to easily escape aquariums, cages, and restaurant tanks? Someone's found a way to give this unnerving ability to robots as well.

A group of researchers from Cornell University's Organic Robotics Lab have developed a synthetic plastic membrane that can expand and change shape dramatically when required in order to fulfill a variety of different functions. What's interesting is that unlike other soft robot technology, this doesn't need a framework of any sorts - there's no awkwardly rigid skeleton at the core of all this; the material is simply able to shapeshift freely into whatever design is required.



There's a lot of different possible applications for the technology, from allowing robots to move more flexibly or creating believable prosthetic limbs, to producing shape-shifting camouflage technology to providing a comforting, squishy interface for those using computers who might need something a little more responsive and able to output touch displays.

According to James Pikul, one of the engineers who's created this technology:

Opening quote
"People are interested in robots with soft features, so they don't accidentally crush a human... When people are making these soft robots, they tend to use the octopus as the perfect example of what we want our robots to do. They can crawl around, swim really fast, grab things, and can camouflage really well."
Closing quote


Somehow, the idea that soft robots can't accidentally kill humans by crushing them is outweighed by the potential idea that they can grow tentacles at will to suffocate a person instead. This technology does feel reminiscent of the Sentinels from X-Men: Days of Future Past, and that's not a comforting thought for anyone who, like Elon Musk, is unnerved by the thought of a robot uprising. This is to say nothing, of course, of the potential uses that criminals might get from robots that can squeeze through tiny gaps, octopus style, in order to sneak into a house and steal stuff.

The negatives of the technology are more than outweighed by the positives, of course. Imagine more durable smartphones, helper robots that don't feel cold and impersonal, and adaptive technology that can meet a niche need without any additional upgrades. Squishy robots could become a lot of fun once they're perfected.

In practical terms, the research into soft robots is no doubt going to continue - anyone who can find a way to make robots more like an octopus stands to revolutionize how we interact with computers in general. Soft skin will allow robots to be more durable, flexible, and capable of meeting a variety of different requirements.

Sure, this takes us one step closer to a shapeshifting liquid metal Terminator, but at least this new creation could be plenty cuddly as well.
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