“It allows devices that are completely soft to be able to interact with their environment, and with human users through things like completely soft sensors and also things like completely soft buttons,” Preston says.
The robot is far from being as sophisticated as your smartphone, but that’s just a matter of how many computations it can do, and how quickly. The robot can do about one computation per second, says Preston, and in time they hope to speed it up slightly. By comparison, your smartphone makes billions of calculations per second. But because of the advantages of soft robots and the fact that they’re best used to perform relatively simple tasks, they don’t quite need the processing power you use to watch videos and check Twitter.
Currently, the team’s robots have 10-20 logic gates, and in future research, they hope to design robots with up to 100 or even 1000, he says. Each of those extra moves would make the mechanoid more sophisticated. Each gate transmits a message, in the form of air, to the next, telling it what to do. The more complicated the network of gates, the more actions the robot can take.
An all-soft robot can interact with humans more effectively, which is what Preston is most excited about. After all, we’re pretty soft, and hard metal or plastic robots need to be carefully calibrated in order not to hurt us. Soft robots simply can’t exert enough force to cause harm by accident, which makes them ideal for performing surgical procedures.
Right now, “the field of soft robotics is attempting to augment or find new abilities,” says Robert Shepherd, a Cornell University soft roboticist who was not involved in the current study. Mimicking something we know a lot about—digital logic, the sort underpinning smartphones and computers—is a logical way to move forward with making soft robots that think for themselves, he says.
If it works out in the field, Shepherd says, the Harvard researchers’ innovation could have “great applications.” Soft robots are generally cheaper to make, safer to work with, and need to do fewer computations to work than their hard-shelled counterparts, which means they could be easier to manufacture, work alongside, and use. If they can think for themselves, too, they might come in handy for things like search and rescue, picking up and sorting animals like mice in a laboratory environment, and even working in a manufacturing setting, where their soft bodies make them better coworkers for fragile humans