Science fiction has long presented us with a pervasive dichotomy of robot-human interaction: They're entities of hard steel, sparks and grating gears, while our own substance is soft flesh and the gentle pulsation of circulatory currents. Just look to "The Terminator," in which a metal death machine assumes only the semblance of humanity through the use of a false, fleshy skin, to see what we're talking about.
But we're evolving robotic bodies to be increasingly biomimetic and soft-bodied. The robot doesn't always have to be the hard core to some comfy, human-friendly exterior. The substance of the machine itself can take on the likeness of biological systems, too.
Harvard University's Octobot is the latest reminder of this quest for flesh. The tiny, squishy automaton is hardly the first soft-bodied bot, but it does take the honors as the first entirely untethered, entirely soft robot. Inspired by the powerful, dexterous and malleable bodies of nature's own cephalopods, the researchers molded the machine's body and 3-D printed all of its functional components out of nonrigid materials. That includes its fuel storage, power and actuation systems.
In other words, there's no mechanical skeleton at the center of this squishy bot. It achieves movement by chemical reaction and the inflation of its balloon-like body chambers. It transforms liquid hydrogen peroxide into gas via a soft electronic oscillator. The gas inflates bladders in the Octobot's arms as needed, summoning them to life.
To be clear, Octobot doesn't do much in its current, proof-of-concept form (it certainly doesn't do any terminating), but the Harvard team hopes to produce future versions that crawl, swim and interact with the environment. What's more, the concepts involved here eventually could transform biomedical technology and robotic surgery. Just imagine an Octobot doctor that slides through a small incision into your abdominal cavity and then carries out diagnosis or surgical repair from the inside.
That's the sort of future Octobot is harbinger to, though its current incarnation is content to simply writhe around and splash in a tray of water.