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This Little Jumping Cube Is Probably How The Robot Apocalypse Starts

But it's so cute! (For now...)

by Carl Franzen
Oct 3 2016, 6:10pm

Video: MITCSAIL/YouTube

Have you ever looked at a Rubik's Cube and thought to yourself "this thing would be better if it could jump"? That's basically the resulting design of a new robot from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Programmable Viscoelastic Materials. Video: MITCSAIL/YouTube

We're using the term "robot" pretty loosely here: made of a common 3D-printed plastic called ABS, with a spring for movement and a simple, commercially available Arduino microcontroller for its brain, this thing isn't exactly The Terminator or a gunslinger out of Westworld (at least not yet). But it can jump on its own, and it has some powerful potential for the future of robotics.

The researchers built this cubebot specifically to test a new shock-absorbing "skin" that goes on its outer shell. The skin was made out of a material that's part solid rubber and part liquid. This material was also 3D-printed, but the big innovation here is that the researchers were able to precisely engineer where the liquid and solid portions of it went, a type of technology known as "programmable viscoelastic materials" (PVM).

The scientists then held a jumping contest, taking cubebots wrapped in various combinations of this new material and comparing how many times they bounced after landing, to cubebots wrapped in foam. The cubebots covered in the new material all bounced fewer times after landing than the one wrapped in foam. They also landed more precisely, and suffered fewer vibrations from impact.

What does this mean for robots moving forward? The researchers try to paint a rosy picture for humanity, writing in a paper to be presented at an upcoming robotics conference: "In the future this material and process may find applications in a wide range of fields, including custom sporting gear, personal protective equipment, and vibration isolation in cameras or industrial equipment."

But they don't shy away from the bottom line, either, saying this material will make for stronger, more flexible, and more indestructible robots (or in their words, it "could allow robots to be more resilient to impacts, to be more accurate when landing, and to reduce controller complexity and effort.")

So enjoy this little jumping cube while it's still cute and nice and peaceful. And pray that any thick-skinned descendants designed in its image don't rise up against us.

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