Robots can be programmed
to do the same task millions of times
with minimal error,
something very difficult for us, right?
And it can be very impressive
to watch them at work.
Look at them.
I could watch them for hours.
What is less impressive
is that if you take these robots
out of the factories,
where the environments are not
perfectly known and measured like here,
to do even a simple task
which doesn't require much precision,
this is what can happen.
I mean, opening a door,
you don't require much precision.
Or a small error in the measurements,
he misses the valve, and that's it --
with no way of recovering,
most of the time.
So why is that?
Well, for many years,
robots have been designed
to emphasize speed and precision,
and this translates
into a very specific architecture.
If you take a robot arm,
it's a very well-defined
set of rigid links
and motors, what we call actuators,
they move the links about the joints.
In this robotic structure,
you have to perfectly
measure your environment,
so what is around,
and you have to perfectly
program every movement
of the robot joints,
because a small error
can generate a very large fault,
so you can damage something
or you can get your robot damaged
if something is harder.
So let's talk about them a moment.
And don't think
about the brains of these robots
or how carefully we program them,
but rather look at their bodies.
There is obviously
something wrong with it,
because what makes a robot
precise and strong
also makes them ridiculously dangerous
and ineffective in the real world,
because their body cannot deform
or better adjust to the interaction
with the real world.
So think about the opposite approach,
being softer than
anything else around you.
Well, maybe you think that you're not
really able to do anything if you're soft,
Well, nature teaches us the opposite.
For example, at the bottom of the ocean,
under thousands of pounds
of hydrostatic pressure,
a completely soft animal
can move and interact
with a much stiffer object than him.
He walks by carrying around
this coconut shell
thanks to the flexibility
of his tentacles,
which serve as both his feet and hands.
an octopus can also open a jar.
It's pretty impressive, right?
But clearly, this is not enabled
just by the brain of this animal,
but also by his body,
and it's a clear example,
maybe the clearest example,
of embodied intelligence,
which is a kind of intelligence
that all living organisms have.
We all have that.
Our body, its shape,
material and structure,
plays a fundamental role
during a physical task,
because we can conform to our environment
so we can succeed in a large
variety of situations
without much planning
or calculations ahead.
So why don't we put
some of this embodied intelligence
into our robotic machines,
to release them from relying
on excessive work
on computation and sensing?
Well, to do that, we can follow
the strategy of nature,
because with evolution,
she's done a pretty good job
in designing machines
for environment interaction.
And it's easy to notice that nature
uses soft material frequently
and stiff material sparingly.
And this is what is done
in this new field of robotics,
which is called "soft robotics,"
in which the main objective
is not to make super-precise machines,
because we've already got them,
but to make robots able to face
unexpected situations in the real world,
so able to go out there.
And what makes a robot soft
is first of all its compliant body,
which is made of materials or structures
that can undergo very large deformations,
so no more rigid links,
and secondly, to move them,
we use what we call distributed actuation,
so we have to control continuously
the shape of this very deformable body,
which has the effect
of having a lot of links and joints,
but we don't have
any stiff structure at all.
So you can imagine that building
a soft robot is a very different process
than stiff robotics,
where you have links, gears, screws
that you must combine
in a very defined way.
In soft robots, you just build
your actuator from scratch
most of the time,
but you shape your flexible material
to the form that responds
to a certain input.
For example, here,
you can just deform a structure
doing a fairly complex shape
if you think about doing the same
with rigid links and joints,
and here, what you use is just one input,
such as air pressure.
OK, but let's see
some cool examples of soft robots.
Here is a little cute guy
developed at Harvard University,
and he walks thanks to waves
of pressure applied along its body,
and thanks to the flexibility,
he can also sneak under a low bridge,
and then keep walking
a little bit different afterwards.
And it's a very preliminary prototype,
but they also built a more robust version
with power on board
that can actually be sent out in the world
and face real-world interactions
like a car passing it over it ...
and keep working.
Or a robotic fish, which swims
like a real fish does in water
simply because it has a soft tail
with distributed actuation
using still air pressure.
That was from MIT,
and of course, we have a robotic octopus.
This was actually one
of the first projects
developed in this new field
of soft robots.
Here, you see the artificial tentacle,
but they actually built an entire machine
with several tentacles
they could just throw in the water,
and you see that it can kind of go around
and do submarine exploration
in a different way
than rigid robots would do.
But this is very important for delicate
environments, such as coral reefs.
Let's go back to the ground.
Here, you see the view
from a growing robot developed
by my colleagues in Stanford.
You see the camera fixed on top.
And this robot is particular,
because using air pressure,
it grows from the tip,
while the rest of the body stays
in firm contact with the environment.
And this is inspired
by plants, not animals,
which grows via the material
in a similar manner
so it can face a pretty large
variety of situations.
But I'm a biomedical engineer,
and perhaps the application
I like the most
is in the medical field,
and it's very difficult to imagine
a closer interaction with the human body
than actually going inside the body,
for example, to perform
a minimally invasive procedure.
And here, robots can be
very helpful with the surgeon,
because they must enter the body
using small holes
and straight instruments,
and these instruments must interact
with very delicate structures
in a very uncertain environment,
and this must be done safely.
Also bringing the camera inside the body,
so bringing the eyes of the surgeon
inside the surgical field
can be very challenging
if you use a rigid stick,
like a classic endoscope.
With my previous research group in Europe,
we developed this
soft camera robot for surgery,
which is very different
from a classic endoscope,
which can move thanks
to the flexibility of the module
that can bend in every direction
and also elongate.
And this was actually used by surgeons
to see what they were doing
with other instruments
from different points of view,
without caring that much
about what was touched around.
And here you see the soft robot in action,
and it just goes inside.
This is a body simulator,
not a real human body.
It goes around.
You have a light, because usually,
you don't have too many lights
inside your body.
But sometimes, a surgical procedure
can even be done using a single needle,
and in Stanford now, we are working
on a very flexible needle,
kind of a very tiny soft robot
which is mechanically designed
to use the interaction with the tissues
and steer around inside a solid organ.
This makes it possible to reach
many different targets, such as tumors,
deep inside a solid organ
by using one single insertion point.
And you can even steer around
the structure that you want to avoid
on the way to the target.
So clearly, this is a pretty
exciting time for robotics.
We have robots that have to deal
with soft structures,
so this poses new
and very challenging questions
for the robotics community,
and indeed, we are just starting
to learn how to control,
how to put sensors
on these very flexible structures.
But of course, we are not even close
to what nature figured out
in millions of years of evolution.
But one thing I know for sure:
robots will be softer and safer,
and they will be out there helping people.