Tiny, self-assembling bots will create more work for humans

Enlarge / The robot is controlled by magnets, so a human is always in the loop. Until we get robots to control the magnets! And then a robot to control the robot who controls the magnets! And then... (credit: Rus, et al.)

It sounds like the ultimate in job-destroying automation: these robots can turn into walkers, swimmers, or gliders, and they are self-assembling. No human hands required for these monsters to go from the road to the air! Only a few small hurdles remain before these bad boys are carrying cargo (or ninjas) across land and sea.

MIT computer scientist Daniela Rus and her team have created a fascinating prototype robot known as Primer that starts out as a little cube controlled by magnetic fields. As you can see in the illustration above, Primer can't move unless a person controls it with magnetic fields beneath the platform. In the video, you can watch it change shape when it bounces onto a special platform. (Note that the video is often speeded up—Primer isn't lightning fast.) There, a thin piece of heat-activated metal folds up around it, creating what Rus calls an origami exoskeleton.

Here, you can see Primer jumping around and turning itself into bigger and more elaborate bots. The little cube is guided by magnetic fields, and the walker bodies fold up when the heating plates under them get warm. Primer even sheds its exoskeleton in water. (video link)

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