Flexible Robot Muscles Shame Our Fleshy Human Bodies

By Wesley Fenlon

Robots are catching up. How much longer can we stave off their inevitable superiority?

Remember that kinda meh (read: terrible) Robin Williams sci-fi vehicle Bicentennial Man from 1999? Some of us will never be able to forget, but that robot odyssey gives us a basis for imaging what the latest developments in robotic muscles may be like. We’re inventing new ways for robots to grab things and interact with fragile humans without breaking our bones. Researchers at the University of Auckland have done one better with work involving dielectric elastomer artificial muscles.

realistically expand and contract just like the real thing.

"Dielectric elastomers consist of a compliant electrical insulator sandwiched between two electrically conducting electrodes. The insulator is typically made of silicone rubber and the electrodes of carbon grease. When a high voltage is applied across the electrodes, charge accumulates in each electrode leaving positive charges in one and negative charges in the other. These positive and negative charges attract, squashing the insulating membrane, and, because the membrane is incompressible, they cause it to expand in area."

Even though these artificial muscles are striving to be more like the real thing, they’re 40 times stronger than human muscles and could actually double as suspension systems for robots and use sensors to “feel” external stimuli. Research has even proven that the muscles can build up and store energy, then use that stored electricity to power motion. 

To sum up: their muscles are stronger and will someday be able to ape the natural flexibility and skin movements of our own bodies. Can we go ahead and declare that robots are cooler than humans, already?