Soft and Mechanical Metamaterial Makes Living Machines No Longer a Thing of the Future

Jacob Goings

A vision from a team of Penn State and the U.S. Air Force researchers is to create autonomous machines combined with artificial intelligence. Because of all of their hard work, they produced a soft, mechanical metamaterial that can “think” about how forces are applied to it, and it can then respond through pre-programmed reactions.

Ryan Harne and James F. Will, Career Development Associate Professors at Penn State, said “We created soft, mechanical metamaterials with flexible, conductive polymer networks that can compute all digital logic computations. Our paper reports a way to create decision-making functionality in engineered materials in a way that could support future soft, autonomous engineered systems that are invested with the basic elements of lifeforms yet are programmed to perform helpful services for people. These could include helping maintain sustainable and robust infrastructure, monitoring of airborne and waterborne contaminants and pathogens, assisting with patient wound healing, and more.”

Since humans think using logic, Ryan Harne and his team tried to mimic this using mechanical force. The mechanical force causes the conductive polymer networks to disconnect and reconnect, which then makes the metamaterial “think.”

By giving the metamaterial an input of a low voltage, the research team was able to create a way for it to decide on how to react. The team discovered this by closely watching the output voltage signal and the conductive polymer network that got reconfigured.

The type of logic that Harne and his team are using for the metamaterial is very different than the type that humans use. It goes beyond mechanical logic, which is binary, which is what most computers use.

When they tried to use binary, they could only construct about half of the logical operations.

Next, the team combined the electrical polymer network with the soft and malleable material, and it worked. They were able to construct all of the logic operations by reconfiguring the soft material and the electrically conductive network at the same time. This also makes sure that the binary output is in the form of electricity, which is crucial for driving an autonomous machine. “This sounds really cool. I can’t wait for this to work fully,” says Colin Hill, a junior at Lakewood High School.

Harne admits that “It is somewhat sci-fi, I do have to admit that, and I will say, I’ve had colleagues think I’m a little crazy.” He also says “But if we as engineers and scientists understand all of the things that make up life, why aren’t we trying to make engineered living things that can help people?”