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Robot octopus is first step toward building the Cthulhu of our dreams

Robot octopus is first step toward building the Cthulhu of our dreams

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Good news for people who love terrifying news: scientists have developed a soft-bodied robot octopus capable of propelling itself around underwater, wedging itself into tiny crevices between rocks, and (maybe one day) dragging swimmers to their doom so it can feast on their gooey insides. The prototype octo-bot is the work of the BioRobotics Institute at Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy, and represents a victory for soft robotics — a fairly new field focused on the creation of squishy machines. For the rest of us, it's a baby Cthulhu.

The robot is a major step in a program that began in 2009 to build a replica of an octopus, and was tested in the Mediterranean Sea earlier this year. In addition to being weird, unknowable nightmare creatures, the Institute's octo-bots mimic real octopi in other ways. The prototype tested in the waters of the Mediterranean can draw in liquid and expel it, farting itself along at speed, or use its eight legs to crawl over rocks on the sandy sea bed. Those tentacles can bend in any direction, gripping objects, limbs, or (potentially) human throats from anywhere.

Writing in IEEE Spectrum, Institute professor Cecilia Laschi describes the multiple methods for making the fake muscles needed to build these legs. Options include using electro-active polymers that contort when exposed to current, or filling a flexible container with a granular substance, and then removing the air in localized areas to "tense" specific areas. Laschi says her team was most interested in shape-memory alloys — metals that revert to a defined shape when heated — but ended up using cables wrapped in silicone rubber for their prototype.

It's early days for soft robotics, and the Institute's robots motion through the water isn't quite as graceful as an actual octopus — the bot's jerky tentacle movements make it look more like an excited kid at Christmas than a sleek underwater animal — but as soft-bodied robots get more advanced, they could be used in surgery, space, and other places where rigid robots are awkward, dangerous, or difficult to maintain. Or they could develop an underwater city, build a huge tentacled overlord of their own, and rise up to enslave humanity. Fingers crossed it's the former, though.