The standard definition of a robot is an electromechanical device that works automatically. But an artificial jellyfish created by Harvard and Caltech researchers goes a lot further than biomimicry using electromechanical means. It's more like an android: It looks like a real creature, moves like one, and incorporates living cardiac muscle cells.
The artificial jellyfish, dubbed "Medusoid," has cultured rat heart muscle cells that produce the pumping action that propels the artificial creature's silicone muscle structure through water.
Made of silicone and rat heart cells, the Medusoid engineered jellyfish's muscles contract like a real jellyfish when placed in liquid and shocked. (Source: California Institute of Technology/Harvard University)
"As engineers, we are very comfortable with building things out of steel, copper, concrete," said co-researcher Kevin Kit Parker, professor of bioengineering and applied physics at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, in a Harvard Gazette article describing the project. "I think of cells as another kind of building substrate, but we need rigorous quantitative design specs to move tissue engineering to a reproducible type of engineering."
Although this graceful, squishy, robot jellyfish's movements aren't nearly as elegant as those of Festo's AirJelly, they make the action of the silicone robot we reported on that mimics its surrounding look crude in comparison.
Parker, an authority on cell- and tissue-powered actuators, collaborated with Janna Nawroth, a Caltech doctoral student in biology, to reverse engineer the movements of a natural Medusa jellyfish. Nawroth’s adviser, John Dabiri, a professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at Caltech, was consulted for his expertise in biological propulsion. The researchers published their work in an article in Nature Biotechnology (subscription or payment required).
The researchers say that a major goal of creating Medusoid was to advance biological tissue engineering. To date, many of these efforts have focused on copying a tissue or organ without considering the relationship between the components and their function, or analyzing which materials would best suit that function.
Since jellyfish use their muscles to pump their way through the water, and their basic structure is similar to that of a beating human heart, the researchers decided to reverse-engineer that function to advance heart tissue research.
After mapping the alignment of subcellular protein networks in the Medusa jellyfish's muscle cells, they studied the propulsion system's electrophysiological triggering and the propulsive stroke's biomechanics. The team found that a sheet of cultured rat heart muscle tissue contracted when electrically stimulated in liquid. They used a silicone polymer to make the artificial Medusoid's body, a thin membrane with eight armlike appendages, and matched the subcellular, cellular, and supracellular jellyfish muscle architecture with the rat heart muscle cells. When the researchers placed Medusoid in a container of salt water and shocked it, the device began swimming with synchronized muscle contractions.
Is it an android? Maybe not quite yet. The researchers’ next steps will include incorporating simple intelligence so the artificial jellyfish can respond to its environment with more advanced behaviors, such as moving toward a light source, and modifying it so it can move in a particular direction.
Rob, I think it's not just your awareness, but a definite explosion, with several trends coming together and interacting, including open source software, cheaper and better electronics (such as cameras and MEMS gyros and other sensors), and the biology angle we're starting to see more of.
Yes, there does seem to be an explosion of robotics going in a surprising variety if directions, Ann. I get the impression that developments in robotics has accelerated tremendously in just the last five or six years. Maybe it just that I'm aware of it lately.
About misnomers, I agree; my pet-peeve is the marketing ploy that misguides public thinking down their agenda's pathway: (Android; Hybrid; i-anything); --- to the point where an entire generation doesn't understand the meaning, yet they all think You're the idiot who doesn't understand.
But I digress ,,, Reno at Anthrobotic has addressed the Name-Game issue quite well, so I give that topic over to Reno, and read intently the subject-matter jungle of uncharted territory he's entering.
Meanwhile, back to the point. Combining engineering materials with once-living tissue and literally bringing them to life ,,, well, its literally Dr. Frankenstein, and its happening in real life nearly 2 centuries after Mary Shelley penned the original story in 1817. Remember it was electricity that brought the being to life. Science mimicking Science Fiction, yet again. Fascinating, Ann. Looking forward to additional posts on this topic.
Regarding definitions, I agree it's complicated. Since the technology is changing, so are the terms and their use and meaning. We've read about androids, implied to be human by their name, for decades in science fiction. But until very recently, the technology wasn't available to combine mechanics, electronics and living tissue. Now it is, and so far it doesn't look human at all: it looks like a jellyfish and some other things we'll be reporting on soon. But the only term we've got is android, so that may have to do for awhile until we come up with a better one that doesn't imply human form. As I commented in another thread, general dictionaries are good for defining broad, commonly used vocabulary terms, but not at all useful for fast-moving, highly specialized fields like science and technology. Wikipedia is usually a lot more reliable. Here's what it says: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot
Glad you liked the post, mrdon. A lot of robot R&D is starting to remind me of science fiction movies. The ones that look like people are really big in Japan, but I agree, they're too weird for my taste. DN did a survey on that subject, asking our Systems & Product Design Engineering and Automation & Control Engineering groups on LinkedIn "Should Robots Look Like People or Machines?" Here are the results: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1381&doc_id=237885
The biggest use for this that comes to mind for me is moving facial features on an android. The "muscles" used would have discrete electrical signals going to them controlled by a cpu or fpga of some sort. When you want the android to smile, particular signals are excited. When you want the android to smile really big, then those signals are excited with a greater amplitude. A frown is just different signals. This is not too far from how our faces actually work.
Obviously there are some hurdles to overcome and refinements to make to get to that point, but the basics of it can be seen in the video.
It wouldn't take much time to create a look-up table for appropriate facial actions (and store that in memory) to make an android have at least basic "emotions".
How many years before your household helping android is able to wink at you when he it cracks a joke?
Great coverage, and I hate to be the robot dork raining semantics down on the parade, but... This naming of robots/drones/cyborgs/androids issue is really starting to spiral into unmitigated ambiguity, so with all due respect, mitigation: this is certainly a novel robot, but I'm afraid it's not an android - the greek preference "andro," from which the word is derived, distinctly implies "man," and "oid" is of course... well, "of." Sure, meanings of specific words change over time, but this isn't one of them.
As examples, the terminator is an android. It's also a cyborg. ASIMO is an android, but not a cyborg. Both are robots. Predator and Reaper drones aren't robots, they're supertech R/C planes. So what do we call the starfish and things like it? I suppose we might just need a new standardized word for these non-mechanical artifcial moving things!
It's a complicated issue that a dictionary alone won't solve. I've addressed it a bit here: "WarBot Update: What to Call the Drones Now that They're here at Home – Suggestions?" http://goo.gl/Dxhh3
I agree about being creepy and fascinating at the same time. It seem's like a mad scientist movie where life is being created in a lab. I like robots with a mechanized appeal but when they start looking and acting like humans that's where I draw the line. Fascinating article.
Imagine being able to illegally download a physical product the same way you can with music and video. The advent of desktop, home, and prosumer 3D printers is having huge repercussions in the intellectual property domain.
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