MIT's media lab compares it to a "real-life Transformer" — a highly adaptable, infinitely scalable machine that can assume almost any shape imaginable. It's called the Milli-Motein. Think of it as programmable matter, the latest development in the growing digital fabrication revolution.
The line that separates the biological world from the synthetic one is growing ever-fainter, as each sphere borrows more and more tricks from the other's playbook. In September, researchers announced the development of an electronic implant that can dissolve completely inside your body. Last month, a man climbed America's tallest skyscraper with the world's first neurally controlled prosthetic leg. Now, researchers inspired by structural biochemistry are working to design shapeshifting robots that could, in theory, assume almost any form imaginable.
The biological concept central to these modifiable machines is protein structure. Organic beings owe much of their complexity, adaptability and functional elegance to proteins. These tiny molecular structures — coded for in DNA and composed of strings of amino acids — can assume an untold number of shapes to fulfill an organism's various functions, and are the universal workforce common to all forms of life. Now, a team of researchers at MIT has melded the concept of infinitely adaptable protein structures with the world of robotics. The end result? The Milli-Motein — a reconfigurable robot, reminiscent of a millipede in its unfolded form, that marks a major step "toward something that can become almost anything."
Co.Design's Mark Wilson spoke with research lead Neil Gershenfeld about their protein-inspired, myriapodal machines, "a robotic manifestation of raw digital data":
At just a few centimeters long, this metal caterpillar is a bit unimpressive to look at, but so is binary code. In reality, it's a one-dimensional robot, a segmented strand of 0s and 1s that's theoretically capable of bending into any shape or structure you can imagine. Coffee cups. Airplane turbines. Anything. "You give us a shape, we give you a code to fold it," Gershenfeld tells me.
On one hand, the Milli-Motein is a radical idea. Any one Milli-Motein circuit could reshape itself to become a smart component of a larger machine, like a turbine, a wheel, or a fender. But on the other hand, its innovation is based on a process that's several billion years old, entrenched in every single cell in our bodies: ribosomes. Ribosomes are proteins that make proteins. They use a process called elongation to build proteins from one-dimensional chains. These chains, via the intricate miracle of protein folding, become the molecular machines in our bodies that sense light in our eyes or move muscles in our arms. It's this 1:1 parallel that allows Gershenfeld to confidently call the Milli-Motein "a mechanical protein, or programmable matter." I like the term "physical software," too.
The Milli-Motein represents the latest advance in what Gershenfield describes in this week's issue of Foreign Affairs as the Digital Fabrication Revolution. "Digital fabrication will allow individuals to design and produce tangible objects on demand, wherever and whenever they need them," he writes. Need a new bike part? Make it yourself on a CNC machine. Need a protective case for your new laptop? Download the blueprints online and print one on your 3D printer. Need a new bike part that can transform into a laptop case? Milli-Motein's your Huckleberry.
"[Milli-Motein] brings us closer to the idea of programmable matter - where computer programs and materials merge to form a new kind of matter whose shape and function can be programmed - not unlike biology," explains Hod Lipson, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and computing and information science at Cornell University, in a release.
"Many people are excited today to learn about 3-D printing and its ability to fabricate any shape; Gershenfeld's group is already thinking about the next episode, where we don't just control the shape of objects, but also their behavior."