Electric muscles

Could you beat the EAP? At the recent artificial arm-wrestling contest, you almost certainly would have. EAP stands for electroactive polymer, also known as artificial muscle, and earlier this month, the best
artificial arms wrestled with a human opponent and lost decisively. (Note: the human opponent was a girl!)

We always hear about artificial intelligence, but never artificial muscle. Why? Because electric motors do our heavy lifting. But muscles have some powerful advantages over motors. When it comes to “real” muscle (that is, stretchy springy animal-like fibers) we are ignorant and unskilled. But good progress is being made, and when we have cheap reliable robot muscle, all kinds of interesting things will become possible. Even the simplest motor is quite complicated, but muscle offers quiet, cheap, scalable functionality. The potential for a wiggly landscape is appealingly weird. Perhaps your car will motor along on cilia. Your computer will be cooled by miniature lungs. And the Lazy Susan will stop being lazy, choosing instead to carry the mashed potatoes to your plate on tiny legs. If you could reel out electric muscle by the yard, Christmas tree lights might also be employed to have the tree dance and twist. Garden hoses could slither their way to the dry part of the lawn. Artificial muscle is a much bigger story than it first appears to be.

Artificial arm wrestling

You have no idea how efficient your muscles are at turning Cheerios into chin-ups. Muscles are silent, smooth, and powerful. All useful machinery humans have built to date are clacking whirring rotating things. IEEE Spectrum has a good article this month (not available for public reading, unfortunately) about artificial muscles. This same topic was recently a cover story in Scientific American (PDF version here). I’m very happy to see interest in this topic taking off, because I’m convinced it’s one of the great enabling technologies of our age if we can make it practical. The author of the Spectrum article, Yoseph Bar-Cohen, has an Artificial Muscle web hub that details a grand challenge for the young field: an armwrestling match between a robotic arm and a human. It looks like this is actually going to happen in March of next year. Let’s hear it for Team Cyborg!