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Popeye has found a competitor…

(L) The electrically actuated muscle with thin resistive wire in a rest position; (R) The muscle is expanded using only a low voltage (8V). Credit: Aslan Miriyev/Columbia Engineering

When I was a kid, and no Playstations nor Tablets were around, reading cartoons was a nice way to spend the time and I remember the powerful muscles of Popeye, made even stronger by eating spinach. I am not sure if eating spinach helps at all but at least that seemed to be something to try out.

Nowadays we have drugs that can improve muscle strength, with some bad side effects that absolutely make them a no-no solution. Exercise is actually the only safe way, if done properly, to strengthen one’s muscle.

There are areas, like improving vision, where we do not have any problem in using some form of prosthetics, be it glasses or contact lenses, and on the horizon we can “see” smart contact lenses delivering augmented reality, and others increasing the sensitivity to our eyes beyond the normal spectrum, i.e. seeing in the infrared and ultraviolet. So far there has not been strong adverse reaction to these potential evolution, although once they will become reality and we will discover some of their implications (like getting a peek under the dresses you are wearing using infrared vision and image processing)  some concerns is bound to rise.

Artificial hands, arms and legs are getting more and more sophisticated finding applications as prosthetics and in robotics. This latter is evolving rapidly, in both sensorial capacity and movement. I just saw an article on Nature Communications on the development of soft muscles that are 3 times as strong as natural muscle.

The result has been achieved by a team at Columbia University, Engineering Creative Machines lab, using a 3D printer to print the special substance forming the muscle. It is made by silicon rubber injected with micro ethanol bubbles that contracts and expand if voltage is applied. This soft muscle can lift 1,000 time its own weight (our muscle can lift 1/3 of that). The prototype is using wires to stimulate the muscle but researchers are planning to use some conductive material and get rid of the wires.

The first application is expected to be in robotics, providing effective means for contraction, lighter and more flexible than the motors currently used.

I won’t be surprised though if in the future these soft muscles can find application in our body, to restore functionality first and, who knows, to improve it.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.