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The future of robots is metallic slime, not stompy metal people

Roboplop is here – not quite what we expected for the next phase in robotics

Science fiction tends to project the present into the future, and so its predictions are often suspect. That’s why we’ll see people send faxes in future worlds imagined years ago, instead of beaming thoughtmails via devices surgically implanted inside their skulls.

This disconnect is especially apparent in robotics. Movies, books and comics from decades past often feature humanoid robots stomping about. This obsession with replicating the human form out of metal and plastic is rarer today. Although Honda spent piles of cash trying to get Asimo to climb some stairs, we’ve mostly resigned ourselves to plastic discs that bump about our homes, sucking up dirt and dust, and static digital assistants that listen to what we’re saying, but aren’t equipped to sprint to the door when a delivery arrives.

In industry, factories are full of robots that perform all manner of tasks, from packing groceries to building cars, but they also don’t look like people. And beyond consumer fare, a modern trend seems to be taking robots in the freakiest possible direction, as epitomised by Boston Dynamics and its multi-legged critters that are akin to escapees from the Upside Down in Stranger Things.

Still, while those worryingly durable, capable and terrifying metal monsters resemble an unreal nightmare, even they don’t compare with the sheer horror of a robot reimagined as a piece of slime. Created by people who should know better at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the black ooze, which at times resembles a kind of slick plasticine roll and at others a metallic turd, can perform all kinds of tricks.

Videos that support the research paper show the slime squeezing through narrow passages a few mm wide, crawling across uneven surfaces, turning into a crescent to ferry small pellets along, and wrapping around small objects to move or contain them. Its top speed is 30mm per second, and it can self-heal when sliced into pieces.

At this point – beyond the sheer joy of living in a world that includes a metallic robotic turd – your main thought might be a simple question: why? On that, the scientists who created the slime believe it has meaningful real-world applications. It could be used to help retrieve a dangerous object someone has swallowed, such as a battery, without having to slice them open. There’s potential for repairing electronics – some videos show the slimy hero connecting two wires. Presumably, hotwiring old cars isn’t out of the question either.

However, there is one tiny snag at this stage: calling this stretchy slime a robot is a stretch in itself. It’s currently directed and manipulated by external magnets. Its creators admit their work lacks autonomy, but do add – chillingly or excitingly, depending on your viewpoint – that their ultimate goal is to deploy it like a robot.

There’s work to be done to get to that stage. The slime’s own particles are toxic and so there’s a need to ensure they can’t escape their silicon confines and unhelpfully poison a person the ‘robot’ is trying to save. The team has said it’s considering dying the slime so it looks less like a terrifying sentient turd. And presumably, there’s a desire to dial down the magnets and up the autonomy too.

On that last point, everyone might want to stop short of infusing this creature with AI, though, or it might decide humans repeatedly calling it a turd – like your correspondent – should be throttled from the inside. Mind you, even if this slimy critter does turn on its masters, it will have been a pleasant change from scientists trying to bring The Terminator into being. Now they’ve moved on to Venom instead. Let’s just hope when it does awake, robo-turd enjoys helping humans and mending broken wires, rather than eating humans and taking over the world.