Designed and autonomous machines combined with artificial intelligence have long been a staple of science fiction, and often as villains like the Cylons in the reboot of “Battlestar Galactica”, creatures made up of biological materials and engineering. But what if these standalone software machines were … useful?
This is the vision of a team of researchers from Penn State and the US Air Force, set out in a recent article by Nature communications. These researchers have produced a flexible mechanical metamaterial that can “think” about how forces are applied to it and react via programmed reactions. This platform holds great potential for a variety of applications ranging from medical treatments to improving the environment.
“We have created flexible mechanical metamaterials with flexible, conductive polymer networks capable of performing all numerical logic calculations,” said Ryan Harne, James F. Will Associate Professor of Career Development, Penn State. “Our paper describes a way to create decision-making functionality in engineered materials in a way that could support future flexible and autonomous engineering systems that are invested with the building blocks of life forms. while being programmed to provide useful services to people. maintain a durable and robust infrastructure, monitor air and waterborne contaminants and pathogens, aid patient healing, and more. “
Human thought processes are based on logic, notes Harne, which is similar to Boolean logic in mathematics. This approach uses binary inputs to process binary control outputs – using only “on” and “off” sequences to represent all thought and cognition. The flexible materials that the research team created “think” using the reconfiguration of networks of conductive polymers. Mechanical force, applied to materials, connects and reconnects the network.
Using low voltage input into the materials, the research team created a way for the flexible material to decide how to react based on the output voltage signal of the reconfigured conductive polymer network.
The type of logic Harne and his team use goes beyond pure mechanical logic, which involves using combinations of bistable switches – switches with two stable states – to represent the “0” and “1” of a. sequence of binary numbers. They found that when they used pure mechanical logic, researchers ended up getting stuck because certain logical operations couldn’t be constructed.
“You’ve reached a point where you can’t actually process all eight logic gates,” Harne said. “You can process four of them, but you cannot process the last four. We have discovered a way to incorporate electrical signals with mechanical signals, which allows us to process all the logic gates used in the modern digital computing. “
The key to achieving all the logic gates was in the combination of the polymeric power grid with the flexible and deformable material. The researchers created the logic operations by simultaneously reconfiguring the flexible material and the electrically conductive network.
It also ensures that the binary output is in the form of electricity, which is needed to drive an actuation mechanism that causes the material to respond to the applied mechanical force. The combination of electrical and mechanical signals allows the machine to move to pull away or push back in a certain direction.
Harne and the team want to go beyond a single material and design something more complex.
“I have a vision for how scientists and engineers can create living systems designed to help society,” Harne said. “All you have to do is bring together all the functions of life forms. And when you do that, you have the building blocks of designed life at your disposal.”
While this all sounds like science fiction, Harne believes he has huge potential.
“It’s a bit of science fiction, I have to admit, and I will say, I’ve had colleagues who think I’m a bit crazy,” Harne said. “But if, as engineers and scientists, we understand all the things that make up life, why don’t we try to create living things designed to help people?”
Along with Harne, other study authors from Penn State include Charles El Helou, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering and the US Air Force’s research laboratory, Philip Buskohl and Christopher Tabor.
Harne’s National Science Foundation Career Development Award and the US Air Force funded this research.
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