Shuguang Li / Wyss Institute at Harvard University


New Artificial Muscle Could Be the Construction Industry's Worst Nightmare

The first thing you might think to yourself upon reading a story about origami robots that can lift 1,000 times their weight is, “Shit, I haven’t been to the gym since before Thanksgiving.” The second thing you might think to yourself upon reading a story about origami robots that can lift 1,000 times their weight is, “Shit, what does this mean for the construction industry?”

The answer: probably nothing good. Construction laborers were already at a pretty big risk for eventually losing their jobs to robots; according to data from both the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and a future employment report, people in that profession face an 88 percent probability of automation down the line.

And now MIT and Harvard scientists are here to make artificial intelligence do the heavy lifting better than any mere human without the expensive and painful risk of injury. In a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers unveiled fluid-driven, origami-inspired artificial muscles for soft robots. Compared to old-school robots, with their hard metal bodies that make them strong and powerful, machines increasingly must also have soft parts to safely deal with humans and feel their way around tricky environments. But naturally, the softer you make a robot, the weaker it gets.

Which brings us to those artificial muscles: In the PNAS report, the MIT and Harvard teams detail how they borrowed the central principle behind origami--small amounts of material, surprisingly simple processes, as the Los Angeles Times puts it--to craft muscle-like structures that are plenty soft and flexible, but still possess massive strength without needing hard parts.

When the scientists put the origami structures inside polymer bags and pumped air in and out, they discovered some “muscles” could lift up to 1,000 times their weight, producing about “six times as much force per unit of area as mammalian muscle,” per the Los Angeles Times. See the robots in action here.

The possibilities for the tech could be endless, but for now, the concept is still in its infant stages. Nevertheless, you might want to keep your eyes peeled for colorful origami robots pulling rock piles at your local construction site soon.

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