Will robots become artificial organisms?

Looking at the future of biodegradable, edible, and living soft robots...
18 January 2022

Interview with 

Jonathan Rossiter, University of Bristol


Gummy bears


Jonathan Rossiter is Professor of Robotics at Bristol University, and he believes that one day we will scrap the word robot for the term artificial organisms, but what does that mean? Harry Lewis finds out...

Jonathan - I think there have been many preconceptions in robotics. People have a look at science fiction and they maybe see their robot vacuum cleaner that's moving around their homes. They think of robots as conventional, made out of metal and plastics and so on. And that's great. We make 10 million of those around the world, and that's wonderful. But if you look at organisms in nature, they have really exciting properties, which are really quite similar to robots, so we can think of robots more in the lines of an organism.

Harry - Where does this feature and where does it end? Is there at all a chance that these robots, if we're starting to term them like organisms, might be feeding and getting energy from similar places that we do?

Jonathan - Yeah. If you think of a robot, a robot has got a body made out of plastic and metal, and it's got a battery where it gets energy from. Then it's got a brain which is made out of a silicon chip or a computer. Whereas artificial organisms, the kind of thing that we work on in Bristol, they have a stomach which eats biological food; It gets energy from food. It's got a body which is soft and compliant like a normal organism, and it's got a brain which is much more like a biological brain. Now, one of the really interesting things about these robots is that we can make them out of materials, which are soft and compliant, and that can biodegrade safely into the environment. That changes the way in which you make the robots and the way in which you can use them.

Harry - How exactly do those artificial stomachs work? How do they transfer the energy from inside the stomach, to the robot?

Jonathan - One of the challenges in making an artificial stomach is that you have food, which is chemical energy, that needs to be turned into electrical energy. One way to do that is to employ something which is naturally occurring in the environment, which is microbes. The microbes can eat the food for us, and then they break it down and generate electrons and protons, the important parts of electricity, and then we use those electrons in our circuit, in our robot.

Harry - So when we're speaking of these soft robots, what materials are you using?

Jonathan - One of the examples I use is like a 'gummy bear' robot, a robot that's made out of a jelly-like material, similar to what you might get in candy and sweets. And that's got some really interesting properties where when you pass electricity through it, it can do something interesting. It moves a little bit like a muscle. Once you've made a robot out of that, it can move on its own. Then at the end of its life, because it's a little bit like a gummy bear, it can biodegrade to nothing. Microbes in the environment will eat the robot and it'll be safe.

Harry - So we've heard Jonathan about how robots are going off to carry out difficult bits of difficult tasks that we can't handle. What is the purpose of having something that's biodegradable? Why is that useful to us?

Jonathan - One of the challenges with current robots is that you can make 10 of them and 100 of them, and you can put them out into the environment, like in the Atlantic ocean to monitor the sea there, but at the end of their life you've got to bring them back. You've got to track them and capture them and bring them back. Otherwise they pollute the environment with a biodegradable robot. You can deploy hundreds, thousands, millions, billions, trillions of these robots. They'll do something really useful, like monitor the environment, and when they reach the end of their lives you don't have to bring them back. You just leave them to degrade and they can have a net positive impact on the environment. That's something we really find very difficult to do with conventional robots.

Harry - I mean it sounds fantastic Jonathan, and something that you'd never consider when you're talking about electrical items or things that we're using for tools to go out and find us information. There must be quite a few challenges creating biodegradable robots because I can't imagine that the technology is there before you. This is something very novel. What are those challenges?

Jonathan - We have to make those three components, the body, the brain, and the stomach, and they each have their own challenges. The body, we have to make these artificial muscles, which are effective. They've got to be as strong as our biological muscles. The stomach has got to be as effective as our stomach at turning food energy, which is incredibly rich in energy, into movement as it were. And the computational side, we want to make computers and artificial intelligence for these robots, which isn't made out of the kind of thing you can find in your mobile phone, a piece of a silicon chip because that doesn't biodegrade very well. We have to look at those technologies and we're doing a lot of work in this and I think maybe in 5 to 10 years time, we can show the kind of first examples of these technologies.

Harry - That's a good question looking towards the future, in 5 to 10 years time or perhaps looking past that as well in a few decades, where do you see the field of robotics going? I know that through speaking in this last half hour, we all know that robotics is such a big field, but where in particular do you think those advancements lie?

Jonathan - I don't think there's any limit actually to where the robots will be. I term 'future robots' as ubiquitous and it's probably gonna be the case that we don't even refer to them as 'robots' because they will be around us. They'll be with us, they'll be on us as part of our clothing, they'll be inside us as food that we eat, and our organs inside, when they go wrong, will be replaced by robotic organisms. So really our lives and our future are very much entwined with these new styles of robots.

Harry - Is there an example, is there a piece that's sitting in your lab at the moment that you can describe to us and what the function might be for it?

Jonathan - At the moment we are working on edible robots as robotic food, and you think, "Well, hold on, if I've got a plate of spaghetti, why would I ever want it to be robotic?" Well there are several reasons. If you have a young child, for example, who doesn't like to eat their food, if the food is more entertaining on the plate perhaps that's gonna encourage them to eat it. That's kind of trivial, but actually a quite important example. Now an even more important pressing example is people who've had a stroke for example, and they can't swallow very well. What happens if your robotic food would swallow itself into your stomach? You put it in your mouth and it would worm its way into your stomach. There you have the pleasure of eating, you don't have to eat some horrible, thin down liquid and the food will deliver nutrients exactly where it's needed. That's the work we're developing at the moment and we think this is gonna take a bit of time, but it's really exciting.

Harry - Thanks there to Jonathan Rossiter.


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