Given recent advances in materials science, an increasing number of engineers believe that the next generation of robots will be crafted from delicate, human-like materials. Already, the materials used in developing robots include several pliable components like soft rubber, silicon, and even cloth. Constructing robots using delicate materials present a new and innovative way of thinking about the classic metallic robots of yesteryear. For now; however, the building of robots still relies heavily on the mechanical standards of hydraulics, pneumatics, and servos.
With new research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we can now get a glimpse into the future of robotics. Having previously powered a robot with the beating heart cells of rats, Professor Rashid Bashir and his team have recently created a series of tiny walking robots powered by strips of skeletal muscle. Using a 3D-printed hydrogel that is flexible enough to bend, but strong enough to maintain its structure, the muscle is attached to two anchors that work like feet when made to contract. While the robots powered with the heart cells were difficult to control, the newer, muscle-based robots were easier to direct by using a targeted electrical pulse.
As shown in the video below, this breakthrough is clearly in its early stages. However, it is easy to see how technology like this could be used to create artificial organs made out of tissue farmed from the patient and combined with the necessary robotics to maintain its functionality.
Let’s consider for a moment the new technology being tested for pace makers. The piezoelectric pacemaker (pictured below) is powered by a nano-generator that creates electric pulses by way of the natural flexing of muscle tissue implanted with a thin flexible piezoelectric membrane. The electricity created with this surgically implanted generator is believed to be capable of charging a pace maker indefinitely.
Then there is Ecobot III (pictured below) from the Bristol Robotics Lab in the UK. This autonomous robot has a synthetic gut that is capable of consuming biomass and breaking it down with its microbial fuel cells. This synthetic gut metabolizes the organic matter into hydrogen atoms. Inside the fuel cells, these atoms journey to an electrode where an electric current is generated. Later, it will excrete the waste product into a special chamber, a process that happens at 24 hour intervals.
Imagine, a robotic organism composed of live 3D-printed muscle tissue grown from the healthy stem cells of an athletic human and hard wired with a complex system of piezoelectric nano generators. The muscle tissue could potentially fuel the entire organism with enough energy to maintain its very existence. If that is not enough, it could also be built to live on organic sewage, powering its fuel cells with a secondary source of energy.
Computer processors are getting smaller and smaller every few months, requiring less power for each new generation of the technology. Though powering an entire robotic system will be difficult, the power needed to fuel each of the necessary processors continues to decrease as time goes on. Is it possible that we could live to see smart robots made of flesh? Will they be covered in a translucent silicon skin, revealing the flexing purple tissue beneath and the frenzy of electric pulses surging visibly throughout their systems? Or will they look human?
Science has taken several steps toward this new reality. With technologies like these, we will skip far ahead of the law-abiding robots that Isaac Asimov dreamed of and head straight to the technology that Philip K. Dick contemplated when he wrote about his android replicants.
This is a brave new world and there are few if any laws currently in place governing the use of robotics. Although fully functioning robots may seem like a dream of a distant future, in reality the advances being made in robotics is only accelerating. Soon, questions concerning their use must be asked and answered.
Perhaps the cautionary science fiction of Isaac Asimov is a good place to start.