Science & Technology

These Synthetic Muscles are Three Times Stronger than Yours

In "The Terminator", the killer robot is played by the most muscular man on the planet because, in the world of the film, only creatures of muscle and flesh could time travel, and, in the real world, the movie was in sore need of some beefcake. Thanks to an innovative new type of synthetic muscle, the robots and prosthetics of the future might be capable of very natural, human-like movement (and three times stronger, to boot).

Building a Brawnier Bot

So modern day robots are really good at lifting really heavy stuff, putting cars together quickly, and fighting each other to the death, but they're not so great at tasks that require a gentler touch. Things like picking a tomato.

"If you use a conventional robot," says Columbia University researcher Aslan Miriyev, "you'll probably end up with juice." Now, a "soft robot" could probably make a nice, chunky salsa easily. Such a robot would be made up of soft, muscle-like tissues instead of hard machine parts, and would be capable of much more delicate and non-squishy motions. And Miriyev is a member of a team that may have just transformed soft robotics forever.

The new synthetic muscle has several advantages over versions that have come before. For one thing, it's cheap and easy to make — you can create it with a 3D printer. It's also very strong, and is capable of lifting 1,000 times its own weight. That's three times stronger than natural muscle. And finally, it doesn't require a lot of energy to flex. Older soft robots might have been soft enough for babysitting duty, but they required more than 10 times the electricity put out by a household socket. Not exactly a robot you want around your loved ones.

Why Soft Robots are the Future

There will probably always be hard robots — the ones that do the big, tough jobs, and look the steely, rugged part. But what's a little more disconcerting is the future of robots that are meant to help us on a personal level. They'll need to maintain a certain level of aesthetics, or else we'll never consent to have them in our lives. And one of those hurdles they'll need to get over is natural motion.

The uncanny valley is the place where a robot looks almost like a human being, but not quite. It's very disconcerting. And one of the worst ways that it can be expressed is in motion — watch this video if you don't believe us. But soft robots could get around that particular revulsion, and open our minds to the possibility of having robot helpers around the house. Only they won't look much like Rosie.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas October 11, 2017