No Assembly Required

A problem with many robots today is that they’re bulky. Transporting the robot can be a problem because it takes up a lot of space. Unfortunately, some scenarios require that the robot arrive at its destination fully assembled. For example, there isn’t anyone on Mars to put a robot that lands there together. I’ve been following a number of stories about robots that self-assemble or transform in some way, but the story Engineers Built an Origami Robot That Can Fold and Crawl Without Human Intervention provides a great overview of what’s happening with robotic science today.

The idea that a robot can fold itself up into a form that’s akin to a sheet of paper and then unfold itself into a useful shape is phenomenal. According to The Guardian, the robot could see use on the battlefield or in space. The accompanying video is pretty impressive. The feeling is one of an autonomous machine that can almost think its way through some basic problems. The robot need not actually start out flat though. A recent InfoWorld story tells of a robot that can transform between an I shape and a 3 shape. This robot is being used to explore the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant and the shape changes are necessary for the robot to move freely. An update to the story on ComputerWorld, tells that the robot still has a ways to go before the shape shifting works without problem.

Of course, these machines are thinking in a way. A Wired article helps you understand the thinking that goes into the design of the origami robot. (The details of the transforming robot aren’t available at this time, but it does have a tether to allow outside interaction—something the origami robot doesn’t need.) Luca’s and my upcoming book, Python for Data Science for Dummies, can help you understand the science and programming behind the artificial intelligence in these robots to an even greater degree. The point is that the origami robot demonstrates that software and good engineering are working together to turn an inexpensive 2D technology into a viable robot that could perform a wide variety of tasks. The point of the Wired article is that the technology is both cheap and easy—it doesn’t rely on anything exotic to make it work. Meanwhile, the transforming robot shows that these devices can work in extremely hazardous conditions that humans could never tolerate.

The sexy view of robots in the movies is full fledged human looking devices or monster construction machines of the sort found in I, Robot. The fact of the matter is that we may very well produce robots of that sort (we’re building them at this moment to act as caregivers), but we’ll also produce a great many robots of other types, such as these origami and transforming robots. Think more along the lines of Blade Runner, which contains a wide variety of robot types. Consider how robots might be used in the real world to perform mundane tasks. For example, the Roomba looks nothing like a robot. It sort of looks like a really big hockey puck.

How do you think the introduction of robots into society will go? Will we continue to see a vast assortment of odd looking robots or will they begin to take on more human characteristics? The future looks truly amazing, but I’d like to hear your point of view today. Talk to me about robotics at