Engineering 101

Helpful, engineered ‘living’ and ‘thinking’ machines in the future?

Engineered, autonomous machines combined with artificial intelligence have long been a staple of science fiction. What if these autonomous soft machines were … helpful? A team of Penn State and U.S. Air Force researchers published their findings in a recent paper in Nature Communications. They produced a soft, mechanical metamaterial that can “think” about how forces are applied to it and respond via programmed reactions. Potential applications include medical treatments to improving the environment.

The soft, mechanical metamaterials with flexible, conductive polymer networks can compute all digital logic computations. The paper reports a way to create decision-making functionality in engineered materials in a way that could support future soft, autonomous engineered systems that are invested with the basic elements of lifeforms yet are programmed to perform helpful services. These could include helping maintain sustainable and robust infrastructure, monitoring of airborne and waterborne contaminants and pathogens, assisting with patient wound healing, and more.”

The soft materials that the research team created “think” using the reconfiguration of the conductive polymer networks. Mechanical force, applied to the materials, connects, and reconnects the network. Using a low voltage input into the materials, the research team created a way for the soft material to decide how to react according to the output voltage signal from the reconfigured conductive polymer network.

The type of logic goes beyond pure mechanical logic, which is a way of using combinations of bistable switches — switches with two stable states — to represent the “0s” and “1s” of a binary number sequence. They found that when they used pure mechanical logic, the researchers ended up getting stuck because certain logical operations cannot be constructed.

The key to realizing all the logic gates was in the combination of the electrical polymer network with the soft, deformable material. The researchers created logic operations by simultaneously reconfiguring the soft material and the electrically conductive network. Harne and the team want to go beyond a single material and design something more complex.

Original Source: Eureka Alert

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