Robots. Cold, hard, unfeeling creatures made of steel, nuts, and bolts. Or are they?
The robots of yesteryear may have fit this description pretty closely, but today’s robots are so much more than the sum of their components. In fact, several research teams are developing soft robotics — robots that can actually feel, grip and respond to outside stimuli. The group of engineers at the University of California, Davis, and Carnegie Mellon University are one such team.
The team developed a robotic gripping arm that uses a biosensing module based on E. coli bacteria to “taste” the environment with its fingers. The goal of their work, says co-author of the study and associate professor of mechanical engineering at CMU, Carmel Majidi, is to build “soft biohybrid robots that can adapt their abilities to sense, feel and move in response to changes in their environmental conditions.”
The Development of Biologically-Based Soft Robotics
This is not a new phenomenon. For the past decade, researchers have been experimenting with ways to use robotics for everything from physical and social interaction to therapy. However, while innovations such as Moxie the Robot Nurse and Hasbro’s Joy for All Companion Pet are certainly notable, they’re missing something that would bring therapeutic functionality to the next level.
That something? Controlled simulation and the ability for the machines to respond accordingly to outside stimuli. Soft robotics already utilize lightweight, soft, and flexible materials that emulate the look and feel of living, breathing creatures. However, aside from the occasional purr or flutter of the eyelids, they don’t act very lifelike. To change this, the research team added actual living cells to soft robots.
“Robotics in general — everything around us — everything children interact with, from toys to appliances to houses to bicycles — is becoming smarter and more humanlike,” says Chris Atkeson, a professor of Computer-Human Interaction at Carnegie Mellon Institute. He tells Parentology, “If we think we’re immersed now, [future generations] are going to be far more so. [Soft robotics] will change the game of parenting.”
What This Means for the Future
Atkeson points to the relationship people have with technology today, and not just their smartphones. Individuals, even those who claim not to rely on electronics, talk to Alexa, or Google Home or Amazon Echo, as if talking to actual humans. They wake up and ask Alexa to report the news, they return home from work and ask Google to play their favorite tunes.
“It’s very addictive,” Atkeson says. “[However], right now, talking to them is like talking to strangers. [The devices] don’t remember what you said. Soon, that will change, and talking to smart devices will be like talking on the phone with a friend. Between ‘phone calls,’ that person will remember what you interacted about. That person learns about you.”
Though the thought of this type of responsive technology is certainly exciting, Atkeson does bring up some sobering points. For one, when introducing soft robots to children or even adults, there is the very real risk that the owner will begin to prefer the company of robots over that of real humans. This is especially the case if manufacturers begin to produce soft robotics that cater to consumers’ every need. As systems learn more about their “owners,” they adapt, and eventually there’s no growth or challenge as individuals learn they can just turn to their robot companions for the interactions they crave.
There’s also the fact that you cannot shut such pervasive technology down. “Right now, you can say, ‘Nobody bring your phones to dinner,’ but you can’t tell your kid to shut down their pet,” Atkeson says.
The future of soft robotics is not all doom and gloom, though. “For kids with developmental disorders,” Atkeson explains, “the technology can be fantastically helpful. [It can help] kids with various physical disorders who may need wearable soft robots to walk and play. There’s lots of work going on with therapy robots for autism and other developmental disorders.
“I predict there will be a major arms race in the educational toys department for both young and old,” he concludes.
As for how society can navigate these changes, Atkeson offers this undeniable truth: “It’s clear it’s happening, there’s a lot of unknowns, it’s clear we’re going to make mistakes, but we have to figure it out.”
Science Robotics: A biosensing soft robot: Autonomous parsing of chemical signals through integrated organic and inorganic interfaces
UC Davis: Robot Arm Tastes With Engineered Bacteria
Chris Atkeson, Professor, Human-Computer Interaction Institute – Carnegie Mellon University, School of Computer Science