Ray Baughman, a professor of chemistry and director of the NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas, recalls seeing a beautiful woman across the room while at a conference in South Korea. But the closer he got, the more disturbed he became.
“That was EveR, a humanoid robot,” he told me. EveR’s creators had done a pretty good job of emulating the human form, he said, but “she didn’t have enough muscles in her face to smile naturally.” That’s just the sort of subtle imperfection that makes robots more creepy than friendly.
Artificial muscles have the capacity to transform robots and prosthetic devices, but they’re surprisingly hard to make. Researchers have been trying for years to have them contract and release quickly enough while still being flexible and not brittle. They’ve tried lots of different structures, from fishing wire that stretches to a rubber cylinder that can be electrically stimulated to contract.
But one of the most futuristic-feeling concepts is the idea of a gel-based muscle, which could completely reshape the way we think about muscles packaging—if anyone can ever build one strong enough to last.
Japanese researchers published a study earlier this month in the journal Nature Communications about a new hydrogel, or a network of synthetic molecules that can expand by absorbing water, that they say could be used as an artificial muscle, even if they're not yet ready to be implemented in the field.
“Traditionally, gels have been used by researchers in many fields because the preparation of the gels is very easy,” Yukikazu Takeoka, a professor of molecular engineering at Nagoya University in Japan and an author of the Nature study, wrote in an email. But he and his team have found a way to strengthen the gels, he said, which should inspire other researchers to find different applications.
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