Stunning Robotics Breakthrough Could Be the First Step Toward a Real Life ‘Westworld’

Robots are an everyday part of our lives. They manufacture cars, build computer chips, and even pour our soft drinks. The main component to our robots today has been the AI it uses to process its commands. We have made incredible leaps and bounds in that field over the past couple of decades. But the other aspect that hasn’t made much of a change has been the actual design or mechanical end of the spectrum.

“We’ve been making great strides toward making robots minds, but robot bodies are still primitive,” says Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University. Researchers at Columbia University have been on a mission to create a non-tethered soft tissue robot that can mimic muscle movement and they have just made a giant leap in that research. This new technology could usher in a new future for in the field of robotics.

What has been impeding robotics to this point?

A robotic host body as it is being created in a lab

HBO’s Westworld | HBO

Robots have always used some sort of hydraulic or pneumatic system to actuate the movements of the robot. In layman’s terms, they pump air or fluid into a container to make it extend or contract. This has always required modern robots to be tethered to some sort pumping mechanism, or they’re just too impractical because of their size. On top of that, their movements were always rigid and exceedingly hard to create the right touch to be used on humans for any reason. Well, that could be a thing of the past now though, with the new soft tissue actuator that has been created by this team of researchers.

Next: What the heck is a soft tissue actuator? Well, I am glad you asked!

How does a soft tissue actuator work?

(L) The electrically actuated muscle with thin resistive wire in a rest position; (R) The muscle is expanded using low power characteristics (8V).

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

Lead author of the study Aslan Miriyev, a postdoctoral researcher in the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University, essentially 3D-printed silicone rubber with ethanol microbubbles. Once the material is printed into any shape they want, all it requires is an electrical charge to actuate, rather than fluid or compressed gas. This is about as close to a real muscle we’ve ever been able to synthetically produce. Most other artificially produced muscles have been biological, and decay without a life support system.

Next: OK nerd, that’s cool, but what does that mean for me?

How this completely changes the landscape of robotics

Robot hand extends index finger towards a human index finger

Robot hand extends index finger towards a human index finger | Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The actuators are lightweight, low-cost, environmentally friendly, and super easy to fabricate. They can also lift about 1000 times their own weight, and can be printed to any shape desired. That means they can be used in anything; your imagination is the only limit. The preceding limit for any technology to thrive is scalability, and robotics have been at a bit of an impasse as of late as a result. Now that everything can be miniaturized and is untethered though, industry leaders can start looking into more personal consumer markets.

Next: That sounds pretty cool, but what industries will benefit most?

Can this help in the field of health care?

9 year old Josh Cathcart from Dalgety Bay shows his excitement during the final fitting for his new bionic hand at Touch Bionics' headquarters

9-year-old Josh Cathcart from Dalgety Bay shows his excitement during the final fitting for his new bionic hand at Touch Bionics’ headquarters | Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

You bet your Affordable Care Act it does! There are implications for robotics to help in a variety of areas. Robots are already being used to help save the elderly from lives of loneliness. Just imagine if we can get them to the level of detail like the robots in Westworld (three-laws safe, of course), and how much that would help prevent abuse in nursing homes as well.

Robots could even potentially help perform very complex surgeries. Researchers at Harvard University have already created a robot to help make endoscopic surgery safer. And all that is without even considering what this means for prosthetics — maybe we could even go full Luke Skywalker for hand replacements (albeit decades in the future if at all).

Next: That’s neat, but won’t this make the world more dangerous?

Could this lead to a safer world?

A small prototype military reconnaissance robot named "Fester"

A small prototype military reconnaissance robot named “Fester” | Scott Nelson / Getty Images

The implications for security are endless. Robots, once they’re scalable, could become partners of actual cops. This could cut down drastically on police corruption, and reduce the need for violent interactions. They could also be used in the armed forces. We are already using automated drones for bomb and IED sweeps, and it isn’t that far of a stretch to take a soldier out of the line of fire.

Next: OK, that’s amazing. How can I benefit from any of this?

How can robots enrich my life?

A line of robots in a large room

I, Robot | 20th Century Fox

Think of all the things you wanted to do, but couldn’t because you had to mow your lawn, or clean your gutters. That will be a thing of the past once you have your own personal robot assistant. Your house will always be clean. You won’t have to run errands. You get to spend more time with your family or your friends or get some online gaming in (I don’t know how lonely you are). The point is, you’ll have a lot more time for you.

Next: OK I’m, in! Where and when can I buy my new fancy robot?

How long until we see this technology in the consumer market?

A Tanscorp UU smart robot is displayed at CES 2017 at the Sands Expo and Convention Center

A Tanscorp UU smart robot is displayed at CES 2017 at the Sands Expo and Convention Center | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The truth is, it’s still gonna be awhile before we start seeing mass manufacturing of personal robots. This is simply a giant leap towards that goal. Think of this as the equivalent to the first microchip. That was invented in 1959, but we didn’t see the first personal computer until the 1970s. So the wait could belong, but you are about to see a whole lot of cool stuff over the next few years from garages and corporations vying to become industry leaders in the rising field of robotics.

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