Robots Are Becoming Alarmingly Strong

From the Los Angeles Times:

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have developed a variety of origami-inspired artificial muscles that can lift up to a thousand times their own weight — and yet be dexterous enough to grip and raise a delicate flower. The devices, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offer a new way to give soft robots super-strength, which could be used everywhere from inside our bodies to outer space.

Cool! But before you get too alarmed at the prospect of robots with the strength of Superman, check out the PNAS paper itself:

This 10 cm-long linear actuator was fabricated within 10 min, with materials costing less than $1. This actuator weighs 2.6 g, and it can lift a 3 kg object within 0.2 s using a -80 kPa vacuum.

Sure enough, that’s a thousand times its weight. But it’s still only about six pounds. Robots with grippers made of FOAM (fluid-driven origami-inspired artificial muscles) won’t be destroying human civilization any time soon.

Joking aside, this really is intriguing. Robotics engineering seems to be advancing about as fast as artificial intelligence—and of course, the two are synergistic. Muscles are controlled by intelligence, and they get better with both exercise, which improves their raw capability, and practice, which improves their response to intelligent control. The same will be true of artificial muscles. Engineering will improve their raw capability and better AI will provide more precise control. In 20 or 30 years our grandchildren will be appalled at the idea that we ever let clumsy, unreliable human beings perform surgery on us. What kind of madman would submit to that?