Andy Marchese has a lot of fish tanks but no fish food — his fish prefer batteries and compressed air. On a recent Monday, Marchese conducted an out-of-water demonstration of Bubbles, a pool-green silicone fish that sways its tail as cavities on each side of its body alternately inflate, creating a perfect imitation of a carp. It is the first autonomous, self-contained robot made mostly of soft parts.

Roboticists are prejudiced toward rigid structures, for which algorithms can be inherited from the well-established factory robot industry. Soft robots solve two huge problems with current robots, however. They don’t have to calculate their movements as precisely as hard robots, which rely on springs and joints, making them better for navigating uncontrolled environments like a house, disaster area, or hospital room. They’re naturally “cage free,” meaning they can work shoulder-to-shoulder with humans. If a soft robot tips over or malfunctions, the danger is on par with being attacked by a pillow. The robot is also less prone to hurt itself.

The Bubbles demonstration was a rare glimpse into MIT’s elite Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the lab that bred graduates who produced the World Wide Web and public key encryption. CSAIL is working on all kinds of robots, but a confluence of key technologies such as 3D printing has inspired scientists from biology, materials science, robotics, and other disciplines to work on a reinterpretation of the robot that looks looks less like C-3PO and more like, say, a squid.