Squishy robots learn to bend, stretch and squirm on command

I love the MIT News web page. Even if I only sorta kinda understand many of the articles, I'm always fascinated by the incredible science and tech advances coming down the pike.

According to this piece, soft, squishy robots will be possible in the near future. 

Imagine a slime-like robot that can seamlessly change its shape to squeeze through narrow spaces, which could be deployed inside the human body to remove an unwanted item.

Wow. Very T2. It turns out training the damn things is much more difficult than training old-fashioned robots. 

But how can one control a squishy robot that doesn't have joints, limbs, or fingers that can be manipulated, and instead can drastically alter its entire shape at will? MIT researchers… developed a control algorithm that can autonomously learn how to move, stretch, and shape a reconfigurable robot to complete a specific task, even when that task requires the robot to change its morphology multiple times. 

Hmmm — I guess I need to look up "morphology."

"…the branch of biology that deals with the form of living organisms, and with relationships between their structures."

Gotcha. Okay, back to the challenges of controlling them: 

Scientists often teach robots to complete tasks using a machine-learning approach known as reinforcement learning, which is a trial-and-error process in which the robot is rewarded for actions that move it closer to a goal.

This can be effective when the robot's moving parts are consistent and well-defined, like a gripper with three fingers. With a robotic gripper, a reinforcement learning algorithm might move one finger slightly, learning by trial and error whether that motion earns it a reward. Then it would move on to the next finger, and so on.

But shape-shifting robots, which are controlled by magnetic fields, can dynamically squish, bend, or elongate their entire bodies.

An orange rectangular-like blob shifts and elongates itself out of a three-walled maze structure to reach a purple target.

Here, a reconfigurable robot learns to elongate and curve its soft body to weave around obstacles and reach a target. Image: Courtesy of the researchers

I love this graphic, which 95% makes me think there's no problem humans can't solve and 5% makes me think this technology will evolve to kill us all.  

Read on if you want more detail about how researchers are continuing to advance this amazing tech.

Previously: Weird SPAM-colored soft robot moves like a zombie hot dog