In a layman’s language, a robot is one that you see in sci-fi movies. In technical terms, a robot is a machine that can carry out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer. However, there is no need for a robot to be humanoid, to have limbs, to walk, or to talk.
According to MIT Technology Review, the boundaries between smart materials, artificial intelligence, embodiment, biology, and robotics are getting blur. The robotics will impact the human race over the next twenty to forty years. From robots that can monitor and repair the natural environment to nano robots to track and kill cancer, and from robots that will lead the way to planetary colonization to robot companions to keep us from loneliness in old age.
Instead of a conventional robot, we can think of a robot in terms of its biological counterpart and having three core components: a body, a brain, and a stomach. The benefit of this pattern of robot is that we are encouraged to exploit and go beyond, all the characteristics of biological organisms. And the realization of this goal is only achievable by concerted research in the areas of smart materials, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, and adaptation.
But, what is smart material? And, how can it impact our lives?
A smart material is one that exhibits some observable effect in one domain when stimulated by another domain. These cover all domains including mechanical, electrical, chemical, optical, thermal, and so on. For example, a thermochromic material exhibits a color change when heated, while an electroactive polymer generates a mechanical output (i.e., it moves) when electrically stimulated.
You need a robot that can track chemicals?—you can use a smart material that changes electrical properties when exposed to the chemical. You need a robotic device that can be implanted in a person but will degrade to nothing when it has done its job of work?—you can use biodegradable, biocompatible, and selectively dissolvable polymers.
How Will Robots bring a revolution?
The compliance of soft robotics makes them ideally suited for direct interaction with biological tissue. The soft-soft interactions of a soft robot and human are inherently much safer than a hard-soft interface imposed by conventional rigid robots. There has been much work on smart materials for direct skin-to-skin contact and for integration on the human skin, including electrical connections and electronic components.
If the smart clothing above is able to generate larger forces it can be used not just for communication but also for physical support. For people who are frail, disabled, or elderly a future solution will be in the form of power-assist clothing that will restore mobility. Restoring mobility can have a great impact on the quality of life of the wearer and may even enable them to return to productive life, thereby helping the wider economy.
We can extend the bio-integration as exemplified by the wearable devices described above into the body. Because soft robotics is so suitable for interaction with biological tissue it is natural to think of a device that can be implanted into the body and which can interact physically with internal structures. We can then build implantable medical devices that can restore the functionality of diseased and damaged organs and structures. Take, for example, soft tissue cancer that can affect organs ranging from the bowels and prostate to the larynx and trachea.
Biodegradable and Environmental Robots
Currently, robots that operate in the natural environment are hampered by their very underlying technologies. Because the robots are made of rigid, complex, and environmentally harmful materials, they must be constantly monitored. When they reach the end of their productive lives they must be recovered and safely disposed of. If, on the other hand, we can make the robots totally environmentally benign, we can be less concerned with their recovery after failure. This is now possible through the development of biodegradable soft robotics.