I, Robot (2004)

Shapeshifting robot escaped jail cell by temporarily liquifying

When I robot (NOW streaming on Paon!) came out nearly two decades ago, the year 2035 still felt like a distant future filled with both wondrous and terrifying possibilities. Now, not so much. The year, and some of its potential, is fast approaching. In the film, humanity has created a veritable army of service robots, thanks to the fictional company US Robotics. Robots do everything for us, from shopping to cooking and cleaning, and everyone has welcomed them into their homes and workplaces without even thinking about it. Everyone except Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith).

Years earlier, Spooner had been in a car accident and had been saved by a robot. One would think that this could attract him to them, but quite the contrary. This same robot left a young girl to die in another car, and Spooner was never able to reconcile his own survival with the girl’s death. A human might have made a different choice, but robots are bound by their programming. It’s a cold calculation and sometimes we might not like the results.

Fortunately, we haven’t yet had to deal with the inevitable consequences of daily interactions with increasingly intelligent machines, but that day is fast approaching. Recently, new artificial intelligences of image generators like DALL-E and text generators like ChatGPT have reignited the public conversation about what artificial intelligence will mean to us and how the world will change in its presence. Now scientists have demonstrated a tunable metallic material that could enable the next class of robots to change their forms at will.

RELATED: M3GAN, HAL, Skynet, and more: 10 times AI tried to kill us in movies

Carmel Majidi of Carnegie Mellon’s Soft Machines Lab and her colleagues demonstrated the potential of low-melting metals for robotics and medical applications. The work was recently published in the journal Matter.

Their material is relatively simple, consisting of only two real ingredients: gallium and magnetic particles. When we think of metal, we often think of iron, which has a melting point of 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,538 degrees Celsius). These aren’t temperatures we typically encounter, so we believe the metal is hard and stiff. Gallium mocks our expectations by having an incredibly low melting point. It melts at 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius), which is colder than the human body. Just pick it up and it oozes through your fingers. But the researchers did not use direct heat to manipulate their material. They used something much stranger.

“We apply this alternating magnetic field which induces a current in the gallium and this current heats it up. This is how we were able to raise the temperature. The great thing is that it’s completely wireless and can penetrate through surfaces, so it doesn’t require a direct line of sight,” Majidi told SYFY WIRE.

While traditional engineering has relied on increasingly complex combinations of mechanisms, scientists and engineers are entering an era of simplification. The goal now is to achieve functionality not through mechanical strength but through the innate properties of the material you have chosen. Low-melting metals are of particular interest because they offer stiffness tuning and electromagnetic properties that can be exploited to change their phase, shape, and move them. It’s something nature achieves with relative ease, but our machines struggle to replicate.

RELATED: I Won’t Let Anything Hurt You: The Science Behind “M3GAN” and Realistic Robots

This work was inspired by the sea ​​cucumber, this marine organism that can change its rigidity quite radically. It goes from being quite stiff and solid to almost gel-like and fluid. It is an important coping mechanism that they use to avoid predators. They can maneuver themselves into very nice spaces and hide. It was that combination of stiffness and shape shifting that we were trying to emulate,” Majidi said.

And imitate what they did. In a demonstration of their hardware, the researchers made a small figurine and placed it in a proportionally small prison cell. Then, using only magnetic fields, they raised the temperature of the metal, turning it into a liquid drop and pushing it out of the cell (pictured below). Returning to a solid just requires a drop in temperature, but returning to the form of an action figure requires a manual molding process. At least for now.

“It was about conveying a vision. What is demonstrated is the ability to take a figure and melt it using this electromagnetic effect. Then use magnets to move this liquefied blog out of a confined space. This is what the demonstration shows,” Majidi said.

It’s a fun proof of concept, but the likely first application of these materials isn’t in shape-shifting robots, it’s in medicine. To achieve this, you will need to make some changes to the hardware. Since the melting point of gallium is much lower than the average temperature of the human body, we could not induce the change of state from solid to liquid and vice-versa. This is why researchers are experimenting with gallium alloys. By combining gallium with other non-toxic metals like bismuth, they might be able to raise the melting point to the right temperature range. The idea is to achieve a material that could undergo the same phase change, from solid to liquid and vice versa, inside the human body.

Further research is needed to ensure that these alloys are safe for direct cell contact. So far, experiments have suggested that they are safe in specific use cases, but may interfere with cell growth. It’s something we’ll have to deal with before we can get robotic shape-shifting drugs over the counter. It may be a matter of finding the right combination of ingredients.

RELATED: San Francisco police propose allowing robots to use deadly force against people

In the meantime, researchers have already tested the material’s ability to retrieve objects or deliver drugs. In one example, a piece of solid material is placed inside a model stomach. When the magnetic field is applied, it turns into a liquid and releases a medicinal compound contained within. In another example, a piece of solid material moves towards a foreign body, liquefies and surrounds it, and solidifies again before extracting itself from the body. The future of these materials remains to be determined, but their potential is significant.

“What excites me about this work is that it really demonstrates another way that metals like gallium, which have a very low melting point, can give systems really extraordinary properties that we don’t have. never seen before in conventional engineering systems,” Majidi said. “I think there’s a lot more to discover about these metals and I hope they become a lot more common in engineering systems, whether it’s medicine, electronics, robotics or whatever. There’s a lot more to explore.

Who needs shape shifting when you have an army of robots at your disposal? See how robots attempt to take over the world the old-fashioned way in I, Robot, streaming now on Peacock.