<h4 style="display:none;" your job is safe —

Tiny, self-assembling bots will create more work for humans

Have no fear! Tiny cube bot is here!

Agrandar / The robot is controlled by magnets, so a human is always in the loop. Until we get robots to control the magnets! And then a robot to control the robot who controls the magnets! And then…

It sounds like the ultimate in job-destroying automation: these robots can turn into walkers, swimmers, or gliders, and they are self-assembling. No human hands required for these monsters to go from the road to the air! Only a few small hurdles remain before these bad boys are carrying cargo (or ninjas) across land and sea.

MIT computer scientist Daniela Rus and her team have created a fascinating prototype robot known as Primer that starts out as a little cube controlled by magnetic fields. As you can see in the illustration above, Primer can’t move unless a person controls it with magnetic fields beneath the platform. In the video, you can watch it change shape when it bounces onto a special platform. (Note that the video is often speeded up—Primer isn’t lightning fast.) There, a thin piece of heat-activated metal folds up around it, creating what Rus calls an origami exoskeleton.

Here, you can see Primer jumping around and turning itself into bigger and more elaborate bots. The little cube is guided by magnetic fields, and the walker bodies fold up when the heating plates under them get warm. Primer even sheds its exoskeleton in water.

The demonstration looks incredible, but Primer is still a long way from prime time. Humans are required to make this bot move at every step of the way. Rus told New Scientist that “we imagine robots like this could become mini surgeons, squished into a pill that you swallow.” Magnetic fields travel easily through biological tissue, so a surgeon could guide the bot through a series of steps, directing it to release targeted medicines or do a biopsy.

Here, the little cube turns itself into a “glider.” Quotation marks definitely required here. You’ll see.

Less clear is how these robots would ever be used for “gliding” tasks like the one in the video above. In a paper for Science Robotics, the researchers write that “The robot could acquire… capabilities to perform additional tasks, such as driving through water and burrowing or anchoring in sand. Exoskeletons could also form fixtures or simple tools, such as a drill, water scoop, shovel, cutter, or grabber.”

Given that the exoskeletons require heat to assemble, and Primer needs a magnetic field to drive around, we’re not going to see anything like this soon.

Regardless of whether it’s a pill or a drill, this self-assembling robot requires at least one human to work. It’s evidence that automation won’t always eliminate human jobs. Sometimes, it will even create new kinds of labor, such as magnetic field operator for robot surgery. Or origami exoskeleton engineer.

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