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Material Robotics: morphing a robot into a shoe

Example of an origami-inspired artificial muscles capable of lifting up to 1,000 times their own weight, simply by applying air or water pressure. Credit: Shuguang Li/Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Robots have evolved significantly, thanks to technology progress, and are now coming in a variety of shapes, from the iconic one -anthropomorphic robots- to autonomous ships, underground trains, manufacturing robots and even vacuum cleaners.

As technology will progress further they will keep taking even more shapes, from micro to macro.

This is what is stated in an article published on Science Robotics by a team of researchers from Oregon State, Yale, Colorado Universities and the École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. Nothing particularly new then. What is interesting though is the vision they are proposing of matters, materials, that becomes robotic and they envision a specific branch of science to study this: material robotics.

According to their vision robots will disappear from our perception because basically any object becomes a robot. A shoe, to give an example, will be manufactured with a material that sense the way you walk, your gait, and will change its elasticity and shape to fit your walking and slowly correct it, as needed.

Materials can be designed in such a way to sense the environment, process the information and change its physical characteristics as needed.

They are showing (watch the clip) how it is possible to manufacture objects to create these characteristics. Using paper-like material and folding it they have created origamis that can change their shape, that have exceptional strength, like the one shown in the photo able to lift 1,000 times its weight.

Smart materials will play a significant role in the next decades and smart cities will become smarter thanks to them.
The researchers point out in their article that robots will even end up in our body, augmenting us and may be in our brain… living in a symbiotic relation with us.

At that point they wonder if they will actually be a brain taking over a body… Looks like science fiction, and it probably is, but it surely makes you think at what lays beyond the frontiers of science that are getting closer and closer.

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.