Recent advances in robotics blurring the line between science fiction and science fact

A robot from ''Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines'' on display at the movie's premiere, June 30, 2003. Reuters file photo

Whether it’s a utopian or apocalyptic future when it comes to robots, the current line of innovations are not only astounding but creative, to say the least.

Robotic technologies have made major leaps forward in recent years with the creation of new materials and advances in artificial intelligence that when combined is starting to resemble those sci-fi robots in the ‘Terminator’ movie series.

First off how about bendy, squishy robots that can assemble themselves? Researchers at Harvard University have developed pliable plastic bricks that are soft and can be stacked like Lego and powered by air. They call their invention ‘click-e-bricks’, and these bricks can be moulded into whatever shape and size they wish in building flexible, rounded structures. The future vision is that robots themselves could do self-repairs simply by shaping these bendy bricks to whatever body part they need.

In another line of the burgeoning field of soft robotics, scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. government last month showcased a newly-invented soft material that can morph between hard and soft states. Robots that are made of this special foam material covered with a wax-like coating can turn soft with a little heating.

By becoming pliable like gelatine, future robots could deform themselves and squeeze through tight spaces and then inflate themselves back to their original form and become rigid again. And since the skin is like wax, if it sustains any damage, the heating process could potentially help it self-heal. How cool is that?

And if that isn’t wacky enough, how about real-life transformers made out of paper?

Scientists at Massachusetts of Technology this past week announced that they have come up with small, self-assembling paper robots that go from being flat to scurrying across tabletops.

These lightweight automatrons, costing no more than $100 for batteries and motors, use the Japanese art of paper folding to transform into walking robots in just four minutes.

The inventors imagine these lightweight, inexpensive bots could find uses in search-and-rescue operations after earthquakes and mine collapses as well as exploring deep space – basically anywhere that is either too dangerous or too extreme for humans or even larger robots.

On a much larger and durable scale, metallic exoskeletons are also becoming a reality. A new motorized device called ReWalk, has just been approved for sale by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The robotic legs straps onto the bodies of paralyzed people and can help them become mobile again.

Of course when we talk about robots, you need some intelligence to control them. The brainiacs at IBM have come up with a postage-stamp sized processor that can out-think some super-computers. Called True North, the chip is said to mimic the nerve bundles in the human brain and some claim it can think like us too.

If all this sounds a bit creepy and worrisome in terms of potential robot uprisings, you are not alone.

In fact some leading minds like billionaire inventor Elon Musk and famed physicist Stephen Hawking recently warned that there seems to be no limits to how far artificial intelligence and robotic technologies could go.

Future enemies or future friends?

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