3D-Printed Muscle Straight Out of ‘Westworld’ Makes Robots More Realistic

If you watched HBO’s ‘Westworld’ earlier this year, you
probably remember the scenes where the nascent humanoid robots
were strung up on circular frames like Leonardo da Vinci’s
‘Vitruvian Man,’ with machines printing white muscle fibers
onto their skeletons. While the process of constructing
androids doesn’t quite resemble this sci-fi vision just yet,
it’s surprisingly close, especially with a new breakthrough in
synthetic muscle tissue
announced by researchers at Columbia Engineering
. Their
tests show a bundle of white muscle held in the palm of a
researcher’s hand, moving and expanding in response to low
power sent through a thin resistive wire.

This self-contained ’soft actuator’ is three times as strong as
natural muscle, so yes, it’s true: Skynet is going to kill us
all. The creators took inspiration from living organisms, using
a silicone rubber matrix with ethanol distributed through
micro-bubbles to simulate muscle tissue. It’s capable of
expanding up to 900% when electrically heated to 80 degrees
celsius, and can perform all sorts of motion tasks when
controlled by computers.

“We’ve been making great strides toward making robots minds,
but robot bodies are still primitive,” says Hod Lipson,
Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia and leader of
the project. “This is a big piece of the puzzle, and, like
biology, the new actuator can be shaped and reshaped a thousand
ways. We’ve overcome one of the final barriers to making
lifelike robots.”

“Our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle,
possibly revolutionizing the way that soft robotic solutions
are engineered today,” adds Aslan Miriyev, a postdoctoral
researcher in the Creative Machines lab and lead author of the
study ‘Soft
Material for Soft Actuators,’
published by Nature
Communications. “It can push, pull, bend, twist and lift
weight. It’s the closest artificial material equivalent we have
to a natural muscle.”

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