April 23, 2024

A new soft, responsive metamaterial has the potential to bring many benefits to society.

Artificial intelligence and engineering have been a hallmark of science fiction for a long time. They often play the villain role of Cylons, creatures made of biological and engineered material. What if these self-governing soft machines could be… useful?

This vision was shared by researchers from Penn State and the U.S. Air Force. It is described in a paper published in Nature Communications. Researchers created a soft, mechanical material that could “think” about the forces it is subject to and then respond through programmed reactions. This platform has great potential to be used in various applications, including medical treatments and environmental improvements.

Ryan Harne is a James F. Will Career Development Associate Professor at Penn State. He said, “We created soft and mechanical metamaterials with flexible, conductive networks that can compute all the digital logic computations.” “Our paper describes a method to create decision-making functionality within engineered materials. This could be used to support a soft, autonomous, engineered system that is invested with essential elements of lifeforms but can also perform valuable services for humans. These include helping maintain a sustainable and robust infrastructure, monitoring for airborne and waterborne pathogens, aiding with patient wound healing, and other valuable services.

Harne says that logic is the basis of human thought processes. It’s similar to Boolean logic in mathematics. This method uses binary inputs to produce binary control outputs. It uses only “on” or “off” sequences to represent thought and cognition. The reconfiguration of conductive polymer network networks allowed for the creation of soft materials. The materials are connected and reconnected by mechanical force.

The research team used a low voltage input to the materials to create a way for the soft matter to determine how to react to the output voltage signal of the reconfigured conductive network.

Harne and his team use a different type of logic than pure mechanical logic. This method uses combinations of bistable switches with two stable states to represent the binary number sequence’s “0s” or “1s”. The researchers discovered that using pure mechanical logic caused them to get stuck, as certain logical operations could not be constructed.

Harne stated that you reach a point when you cannot process all eight logic gates. You can only process four of them. The last four are impossible to process. We found a way to combine electrical and mechanical signals. This allowed us to process all the logic gates in modern digital computing.

Combining the electrical polymer network and the soft, deformable materials was the key to all logic gates. Researchers created the logic operations by reconfiguring the smooth fabric and the electrically conductive networks.

This ensures that the binary output comes in an electrical current necessary to drive an actuator mechanism that causes the material to respond to the applied mechanical force. Combining electrical and mechanical signals allows the machine to move to either push back or get out of a particular direction.

Harne and his team want to design more than a single material.

Harne stated, “I envision how scientists and engineers create engineered living systems to help society.” All you have to do is combine different life forms’ functions. When you do this, you have the building blocks for engineered life at your fingertips.

Although it sounds like science fiction, Harne believes this has excellent potential.

Harne stated, “It is somewhat science-fi, but I have to admit it, and I will confess that I have had colleagues think I’m crazy.” “But engineers and scientists know all the elements that make life possible. So why don’t we try to engineer living things that are more human-friendly?

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