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.
Seems like there is some great research potential at the heart of this project. Rat heart muscle cells--curious about that one. Anything about the rat heart muscle that lends itself to this or is it more that rats are the go-to source for research?
Beth, rats are definitely one of, if not the, most common animals used in lab experiments. They are bred specifically for this purpose. And incorporating living bioengineered tissue into robots appears to be a trend. I'll be posting on this subject again soon.
Although they are bred for lab experiments, I never really thought of it going much further than rats more than getting injected with drugs that are undergoing testing, or having makeup put on them (wink).
Seriously, though, putting living tissue into robots is a tad bit creepy. More and more, after reading your posts, Ann, am I beginning to understand the term uncanny valley and why it's real.
Lipstick on a rat?? Hadn't heard of that one. I agree, Jenn, it's getting creepy when we start combining engineered living tissue with machines. But also fascinating. I think that uncanny valley may be expanding into more of a continent at this point.
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.
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
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.
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.
Hmm. I didn't realize open source software was part of the development process of these robots, Ann. I'm sure that's hugely helpful. At any rate, we seem to be in some golden age for developments in robots.
Ann, what are some of the other trends driving developments in robotics? I would imagine advances in motion control is a factor. From you articles, it also sounds like funding at universities is helping. Military funding also seems to be a factor. The filling of specific needs seems to be less of a factor. But I may be wrong about that.
Rob, as I mentioned, several trends are coming together and interacting to boost robotics development, including open source software and cheaper and better electronics (such as cameras and MEMS gyros and other sensors). No doubt motion control advances figure in there, too. Did you have some specific one sin mind? In addition, the Medusoid is an example of the emergence of biorobotics we're starting to see more of.
What made me curious, Ann, was the growing number of robotic developments that don't seem to be specifically tied to solving problems. Seems like a lot of the developments are raw research -- which I think if great. I would guess that part of it is that working on robots is fun.
Thanks for explaining, Rob. From what I've seen, most of the new, exploding research is aimed at solving very specific problems, and much of it is being funded by the military. A considerably smaller amount, such as Medusoid, is aimed at fundamental, or "raw", research, but a lot of that looks applicable to some the purpose-driven work.
Interesting that the military has such a large role in robotics developments, Ann. I would imagine it's like an iceberg -- what the militrary reveals is probably a small portion of the overall work in this area. A good portion of it is probably secret.
Lou, I think it's unfortunate that the term "android" has been co-opted by a commercial enterprise, and not very accurately, either. Regarding the Medusoid, I agree about the control system--I'm really curious to know what they have in mind. This isn't quite a robot yet, or an android, but with the correct control system, it could be.
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.
Ann, great article and I loved the video. Though crude, the movement was much more lifelike than I anticipated. My mind reels at the possible applications to real-life biological systems. I expect the field of bio-ethics to explode in the next 10 years as we humans grappled with these developments. As you say, this is the stuff of Science Fiction staring us right in the face. Exciting to say the least.
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
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?
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
Since the article mentioned that that the device (maybe not the right word there) using living tissue, I was wondering what they are doing to keep it alive? Is it simply extracting the nutrients it needs out of the solution it is operating in? Taking that thought one step further, what is the life-span of something like this and how are the non-living parts recycled with new heart muscle?
By the way, I was thinking the same thing that naperlou said. From the title, I was wondering about a robotic cell phone.
If you see a hitchhiker along the road in Canada this summer, it may not be human. That’s because a robot is thumbing its way across our neighbor to the north as part of a collaborative research project by several Canadian universities.
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