The Future of Robots: Soft, Flexible, Squeezable

Otherlab Soft Robots
If someone asks you to picture a robot, the first image that probably comes to mind is the steel exoskeleton from “The Terminator” films, or one of those creepy mechanical “dogs” produced by Boston Robotics.

But if teams of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and other institutions succeed in their latest endeavors, the robots of the future could look very different: soft, squiggly, and flexible.

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“There are only maybe three or four interesting demonstrations of unique function and capacity,” Saul Griffith, founder of soft-robotics startup Otherlab, told The Verge as part of that publication’s extensive article on the nascent trend. “With those things said, the flexibility, potential low cost, and good match with human scale tasks makes soft robots very attractive.”

In theory, soft robots would circumvent many of the thorny issues confronting automatons in their current form. Rather than crushing an object (or a person) between metal pinchers, a plush tentacle or hand could envelop and lift the target. Given how many robots struggle with balancing on uneven surfaces, a squishy exterior could blunt any damage from falls or collisions. Last but certainly not least, scientists and rescue workers could deploy supple, squeezable robots to disaster zones and harsh environments with less fear that the hardware will end up damaged or destroyed.

These experiments with soft robotics may benefit from tech companies’ increasing interest in investing in the segment; Google has acquired seven robotics firms in the past twelve months, for instance, and it’s not farfetched to see the search-engine giant buying up a soft-robotics startup for the portfolio. For those who work in robotics design, engineering, software support, or embedded development, it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on this squashy sub-segment as it evolves—your future projects could involve building a ‘bot that’s squeezable.

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Image: Otherlab