The Tiny Transforming Robot That Can Turn Itself Into (Almost) Anything


By Chris Gayomali

How do you build a real-life Transformer capable of molding itself into nearly any shape, no matter how complex? According to MIT's Neil Gershenfeld and his colleagues, you start small.

Meet the Milli-Motein. Although it doesn't look like much at first, the caterpillar-sized robot is capable of bending, twisting, elongating, and combining with an endless number of other links into nearly any shape you can imagine, from coffee cups to airplane turbines. Its innovation is "based on a process that's several billion years old, entrenched in every cell in our bodies," says Mark Wilson at Fast Co. Design: "Ribosomes." On a molecular level, proteins give living things their shape. And ribosomes are the proteins that make proteins. Wilson explains how ribosomes work:

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 process of creating physical objects with these mechanical proteins is called Digital Fabrication. Foldable links like Milli-Motein will one day be able to fabricate three-dimensional objects on the fly — once the individual robot pieces get smaller, cheaper, and more durable.

So in the not-so-distant future, if you want a bike that can reconfigure itself as a snowboard, all you'd theoretically have to do is download the proper instructions that tell your Milli-Moteins (or whatever the end-product winds up being called) how to shape-shift into whatever it is you need. In much the same way living things can take on an endless variety of forms, the possibilities with these robotic building blocks are endless.

Take a look: