Saturday, March 3, 2012

Robotic octopus arm and the soft-robot revolution

I sometimes fatuously forget that great engineers come out of Italy.

After all, there's been da Vinci, Ferrari, Chef Boyardee.  I'm kidding of course on that last one.  Now, transhumanism shows itself once more as scientists at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna near the coast of Tuscany have created a synthetic octopus limb.

The octopus has a waterproof (naturally) body made of silicone and soft rubber wrapped around a steel cable.  Artificial tactile sensors on the surface of the limb connect to circuitry within the arm, allowing the robot to perceive contacts when grabbing objects.  Previous attempts at so-called "soft robots" were not entirely successful as they are unable to grab and manipulate other objects in their environment.  This model apparently corrects that defect.  A full-fledged, eight-arm robot octopus is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

No, this wasn't done just for giggles.  The octopus is an organism renowned for its ability to get into confined spaces.  A soft-robot such as this could benefit sea exploration or rescuing people trapped underwater.  Doctors are already requesting the octopus-like limb for use in endoscopic procedures.

I'm encouraged as this seems like only the starting point of applications for technology of this kind.  I see many uses for it in cybernetics.  A soft-limb such as this one might lead to a more "lifelike" cybernetic arm.  The innovation that allows the octopus arm to both grab and tactility sense what it's holding is a vast stride for transhumanism.  As we continue to advance in developments that carry signals from the brain to cybernetic circuitry, we may be able to see these kinds of limbs replacing our meaty ones on a greater basis. 

And no, I don't mean octopus limbs swapped for human arms.  Even though that might be kinda cool, too.  I await the inevitable Dr. Octopus references.

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