The SRI International campus is nestled on a quiet tree-lined Silicon Valley street, down the road from a high school and a seminary. The commuter train runs nearby. Its buildings are nondescript brick constructions that harken back to the 1970s. By all accounts, it’s a rather unimpressive place.
But within its walls, scientists are building the future. SRI has been at the forefront of computer science, artificial intelligence and robotics since the 60s. Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant, was born here. So was Shakey, a quasi-autonomous robot whose navigation technology is still used by car companies and space agencies today.
For the last two decades, roboticist Roy Kornbluh has been working here on a different breed of machine: a soft one, which has the potential to completely change how we think about and interact with robots.
“You almost use the term robotic as an insult to someone. If you say someone is ‘so robotic’ that means they’re really stiff,” he says. Stiff, both in terms of intelligence and form. Kornbluh, a soft-spoken engineer with a wry sense of humor and a penchant to talk with his hands, is focusing on the form. He wants to transform robot bodies so they feel and behave more like soft biological systems.
Think of them as a sort of halfway point in the robolife continuum from the hard-shelled Terminator T-800 to the liquid T-1000 of Terminator 2. These softer machines will mold themselves to us and our environments in ways that our favorite robots—the disembodied Siris and sharp-edged Shakeys of the world—can’t.
“Soft robotics is going to be a very big deal. It provides a set of capabilities that just can't be performed with hard robots,” said George Whitesides, a soft robotics expert at Harvard University. “It opens up a new door for robotics.”
They’ll be safer to interact with: if you bump into them, it won’t hurt. That’s important as robots become more commonplace in our homes, hospitals, schools, assisted living facilities and factories. Surgeons will be able to explore your insides without the danger of a sharp object damaging your soft tissues. Small elastic bots will be able to wiggle their way through debris, making them great candidates for search and rescue missions, much better than the clumsy, hard humanoid DARPA robots you’re probably more familiar with.
And when robotics are soft, it's much more comfortable to wear them, meaning we may more regularly don cyborgian enhancements.
“A lot of the motivation for soft robotics is there’s going to be more human-robot interaction,” says Kornbluh, who studied biology early in his career. “People mostly think of that as ‘Oh, I’m going to be working with a robot’. But we can’t get any more [intimate] human-robot interaction than wearing a robot—or a robot being part of you.”
One of Kornbluh's—and SRI’s—pet soft robotics projects is the Superflex, a soft exoskeleton-style, battery-powered compressive suit meant to help people move around. Kornbluh refers to it as a wearable robot.
An SRI roboticist who tried the suit on for the first time when Fusion visited the lab said he felt like Batman wearing it, an appropriate choice since "Batman actually has no superpowers," Kornbluh said. "It's all about technology."
When the 7-pound suit is powered off, “it just feels like normal clothing,” says Kate Witherspoon, SRI’s textile expert and one of the suit’s developers. “But when it’s powered on, it just gives you that little boost.”
The boost is generated by fake mechanical muscles that take the load off your real ones, augmenting the body’s natural abilities. These faux muscles can withstand 250 pounds of force, but weigh only as much as a pound each. If you make the "muscles" smaller and put them in more locations on the body, “all of a sudden you can do really compound movements and you can assist the body in new ways,” Witherspoon says. "That’s going to be the wave of the future.”
The suit also has sensors integrated into the fabric that measure heart rate and track the location of your joints relative to one another. That helps an algorithm “know” when its artificial muscles should pull or push, and allow the suit to be personalized to a person's gait and cadence. Right now, the suit's only able to detect “normal” walking, but upcoming versions will recognize whether you’re climbing stairs or stepping over obstacles.
The suit started off three years ago as part of a DARPA program to develop technologies to protect soldiers’ bodies from injury caused by the constant strain of battle. SRI has since cut ties with DARPA (for this project) and now has a prototype it wants to commercialize. It's working with biotech company Solid Biosciences to make a soft robotic suit for kids with muscular dystrophy that would strengthen their bodies to make movement easier. They are currently working with clinics for people with the muscle-weakening disease. Next up: suits for elderly users and people going through physical therapy. Their target price point per full suit: $1,000.
Compare that to a multi-million-dollar robot made for DARPA. That's the real promise of soft robotics—the components are much cheaper. The suit makes use of electrolaminants, a special kind of low-cost, light-weight material, with shape-shifting capabilities.
"Materials can be hard, like metals, or soft like rubbers. But what if you didn't have to choose?," says Kornbluh. With electrolaminants, you don't have to. When they're powered off, they're floppy and flexible. When they're powered on, they turn rigid. In the suit, they help absorb energy to reduce physical stress on the body. It can change according to what its user is doing, relaxing and turning soft when the person is sitting or flexing when she stands to walk or run.
Other soft robots are made of cheap rubbers or textiles, but the materials are just one important component.
"The body by itself isn’t going to do the job. You need the control algorithm that will deliver on the promise of agile and dynamic manipulation,” said Daniela Rus, a roboticist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The field hasn't made as much progress there, she says, as it has in finding suitable materials, but it's moving forward.
“The key is that you can be sloppy," she told me. Soft robots are much more forgiving. With soft grippers, you don't need to code in the exact geometry or location of an object. So, engineers building computer vision and navigation systems for robots don't need to be as precise with a soft robot as with a hard one. Given the current limitations of artificial intelligence, this is a big plus.
In the last five years, the field of soft robotics has really exploded, experts told me. Hobbyists are building their own and entering their projects in competitions. Last year, a soft robot starred on the big screen in Disney's Big Hero 6. (Disclosure: Fusion is partly owned by ABC-Disney.) There's now a scientific journal dedicated to soft robotics.
We’re starting to see soft robotics companies launch, like Pneubotics and Soft Robotics which do manufacturing. With its balloon-like, inflatable robots, Pneubotics' website says it's going after a "$165 billion global material handling market that has resisted traditional robotics due to their high cost, weight, lack of mobility, and need for safety cages"—though it's unclear whether it's actually working with any clients. (Pneubotics didn't reply to a request for comment.)
Soft Robotics is doubling down on manufacturing and fulfillment centers. It's already landed a few clients, according to its CEO, Carl Vause. Its modular flexi-grip robots are attractive to packaging companies because they can handle a wide variety of objects reliably, just like human fingers. Hard robots with clippers for hands can't really do that.
Other industries in which soft robotics will have a big impact, says Harvard's George Whitesides, will be in healthcare and in rehabilitation and elder and child care settings. The SRI suit and a similar DARPA-funded project at Harvard are part of that movement.
For Kornbluh, the Superflex suit project is becoming increasingly personal. His hip joint is deteriorating, causing him to walk with a slight limp. When he's tested out the suit himself, he felt it helped him walk with a more normal gait. That has made the value of his work even more tangible.
"My little experience with how much I felt it helped me suggests that many people would make the decision to wear it," he says.
Despite its benefits, human stubbornness might very well be soft robotics' biggest barrier. After all, human biases are a doozy to overcome. Can we get used to capitulating some of our physical capabilities to machines, the same way we've begun to offload mental tasks to our smartphones?
The SRI researchers have already come up against this with soldiers who tested the wearable robot. “Getting them to let the suit do what it was designed to do was perhaps the biggest challenge," Kornbluh says. "But that’s really just a question of training and getting comfortable with the suit. Me, on the other hand, I try to be as lazy as possible.”
Perhaps more of us will eventually follow suit.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.