Carmel Majidi, of the Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, explored this question in a recent paper in the journal Soft Robotics. “Like an octopus squeezing through a narrow opening,” he wrote, “a soft robot must adapt its shape and locomotion strategy for a broad range of tasks, obstacles and environmental conditions.” That’s not exactly C-3PO.
Our rigid robotics have come a long way since mid-20th-century Jetsonlike imaginings. Many are now capable of extremely nuanced tasks and coordinated efforts, including running like a cheetah. But they also hold us back from expanding far outside of specialized mechanical tasks—and into the everyday human world, such as in the operating room or even functioning as second skins. Carmel envisions a world where next-gen robots are “elastically soft and capable of safely interacting with humans or navigating through tightly constrained environments.”