The robots of the future are soft and octopus-like

Soft robots made from materials like silicone have the potential to change what we use robots for and challenge how we perceive them, says PhD student Jonas Jørgensen, who uses his combined background as a physicist and art historian in his experiments with the technology.

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What is your current research about?

My research is within soft robots, which is a new type of robot that has gained ground over the past 10 years. Unlike robots made of plastic or metal that move in fixed ways, soft robots are made from materials like silicone that can be cast in exactly the shape you want. Instead of using electric motors like in normal robots, you can make them bend or move using compressed air. Soft robots have numerous practical benefits. The soft material can be exploited in industrial robots, so they are able to pick a tomato up from the ground without damaging it. They are also safer to interact with than robots made of metal.

I use my background as a physicist and art historian to both build soft robots and find new ways to design and control them using information technology. The aim of my research is partially to make technical contributions to the field. But as an art historian, I am particularly interested in what the aesthetic aspects of the technology means for its future use and development. This I explore partly through artistic practice and analysis grounded in media and cultural theory.

What have you discovered so far?

From film and literature, we have a lot of cultural notions of what robots are and how they behave. The physical design of robots have a big impact on our perceptions of what they can do and how we interact with them. Soft robots are inspired by biology, for instance mollusks like octopus or larvae. Their surface feels a bit like the skin of a human or an animal, and the way they move is similar to something we associate with a living being.

I believe that if we are to take full advantage of soft robots, a multi-disciplinary approach looking at both technical and aesthetic aspects is crucial. We are always talking about the benefits of robots, but the interdisciplinary approach is also good for identifying limitations. In some contexts, soft robots will not be useful, for instance because people do not recognize them as robots. Currently, soft robot arms are being developed for bathing elderly and disabled people. Here it is important to use the aesthetic and cultural notions of robots to consider how it feels to get a bath from a robot - is it something potential users will accept, or should we drop the idea?

What do you find most exciting about your field?

Soft robotics is a field that is constantly moving in new directions. Material scientists, roboticists, computer scientists and biologists are working together and challenging the notion of ​​what a robot can be. Right now researchers are trying to build sustainable robots of materials that perish after they have completed their task. Such ecological perspectives are very exciting to me.

Further information

Jonas Jørgensen, PhD Student, email jjoe@itu.dk

Vibeke Arildsen, Press Officer, phone 2555 0447, email viar@itu.dk