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Shape Shifting Robots Could Soon Be A Reality, Thanks To MIT And Google

I'm certain everyone here remembers the deadly, shape-shifting T-1000 from Terminater 2: Judgement Day. Composed of nanotechnology, the robot was capable of reshaping itself at will, either to transform into a liquid-like state or to visually mimic any surface. To this day, it remains one of the deadliest foes the Terminator has ever faced.

And we might have figured out how to make one ourselves.

Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. We don't really have the nanotechnology required to create true liquid metal quite yet, nor is artificial intelligence technology at the point where it could feasibly be used to create an army of robot assassins (thankfully). At the same time, though, today represents a great leap forward in the world of robotics. I suppose I should explain myself, shouldn't I?

Alright, well, there's a team of researchers at MIT that has been working on something very, very interesting. Operating in conjunction with the Google-owned Boston Dynamics, the scientists have managed to develop a phase-changing material that can switch between a 'hard' and 'soft' state at will. Now, the less-exciting news regarding this announcement is that the material's comprised of wax and foam, not nanotechnology. 

Still, by creating our robots out of this material, we'd give them the ability to easily restructure themselves, allowing us to create machines which could be used for a wide variety of different tasks as opposed to having to specialize. A housekeeping robot, for example, could rework part of its body into a mop in order to clean a spill, reshaping itself again to trim the garden without missing a beat. 

The implications outside of the consumer sector are even more startling. Imagine a medical robot that could change shape in order to better perform surgery, or a rescue droid that could ooze its way through collapsed structures and rubble in order to rescue disaster survivors. The possibilities are quite literally endless. 

So, yeah. Even though it's nothing like the ultra-futuristic shapeshifters of science fiction it's still very, very cool.

The project is the brainchild of engineering and applied mathematics professor Anette Hosol, who has been working at a team which includes her former graduate student Nadia Cheng. It was originally intended to be a contribution to the DARPA-sponsored Chemical Robots program. That program - clearly designed with at least some military application in mind - challenged researchers to create a material that could squeeze into small spaces, yet still exert enough force to move or impact them.

In order to effect the phase-change, a robot using this material would heat the wax in their structure to make it malleable by running current through an embedded wire. In addition to allowing a robot to slip through spaces which would ordinarily be impassable, it also serves as a sort of 'self-repair' system, eliminating any structural damage the robot may have suffered while 'hardened.'

The researchers have suggested that the wax/foam combination is just the beginning. In future versions of the material, they're looking to replace it with a stronger material such as solder. What this ultimately means is that machines in the vein of the T-1000 are perhaps a few decades away, at most. I'm not certain whether to be excited or terrified by the prospect.

Maybe both?