It seems that the line which separates the biological world from the synthetic is growing fainter all the time. Just consider advancements made in the past year alone: In January, researchers at MIT created the world’s first medimachine. Then in September, researchers announced the development of an electronic implant that can dissolve completely inside your body, followed shortly thereafter by the creation of the first bionic hand. And then in November, amputee Zak Vawter climbed America’s tallest skyscraper with the world’s first neurally controlled prosthetic leg.
Now, researchers inspired by structural biochemistry are working to design shapeshifting robots that could, in theory, assume almost any form imaginable. That’s the idea behind MIT’s latest invention, the Milli-Motein: a highly adaptable, infinitely scalable machine that can assume almost any shape imaginable. MIT media labs describes the device as both the robotic equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife, and a “real-life transformer”.
But, like many inventions these days, the inspiration comes from organic biology, specifically the protein structure. The building block of all life, proteins can assume an untold number of shapes to fulfill an organism’s various functions, and are the universal workforce to all of life. By combining that concept with the world of robotics, the MIT research team hopes to create a new breed of robot that can assume any shape to perform multiple functions, and the Milli-Motein is just the beginning.
According to research lead Neil Gershenfeld, this device represents the latest advance in what he describes as the “Digital Fabrication Revolution”. As he put it: “Digital fabrication will allow individuals to design and produce tangible objects on demand, wherever and whenever they need them.” Also known as “programmable matter” – or “smartmatter” – products made from this kind of material could not only change their shapes, but become new things altogether.
Naturally, this is a small step in that direction, but the eventual goal is nothing short of revolutionary. I can envision a future where people will actually line up to buy the new Acme “handy-dandy micro-helper”, a device which can convert from a screwdriver to a HDMI cord, a tablet, a fannypack, or a pair of shoes. Whatever you need, the micro-helper has you covered! Hey, that’d be a good slogan. I should start investigating patents now, don’t want Kurzweil and all those futurists making money off of this instead of me!
Check out the video below for footage of the Milli-Motein in action, and a brief description of the principles involved: