It's the first machine that can both form and function without a human ever touching it.
Run for the hills, everyone. For years now, scientists have tried to make self-assembling robots, generally with no success. Now, finally, the brightest minds at MIT and Harvard University have managed to laser print the components of a robot and program those separate components to work together to form a working, walking robot. A human never touches the damn thing.
It's every bit as crazy as it sounds. The researchers are calling it an "origami robot," because they used the principles of origami to design it, it's partially made of paper, and it's got the sharp angles typically found in the otherwise harmless art of paper-folding.
"The exciting thing here is that you create this device that has computation embedded in the flat, printed version," Daniela Rus, an MIT researcher said in a statement. "When these devices lift up from the ground into the third dimension, they do it in a thoughtful way."
And that, folks, is presumably the quote that will be reprinted in history books sometime in the near future when we look back at the moment robots decided they didn't need us anymore.
In all seriousness, this is a pretty remarkable breakthrough—it's not very often a robot is Science's lead research paper for the week. The team had been working on engineering self-assembling robots for more than a decade, and it's the first machine that can both form and function without any human intervention. It's made out of a mixture of paper and a polymer material that holds the circuits necessary to make and power the machine.
Each component was printed out on a flat sheet, making them cheap, easy to make, and easy to ship. The researchers imagine creating self-assembling furniture, using the robots to slip through cracks and crevices in, say, a collapsed building. The robot could be pushed through passageways and allowed to self-assemble on the other side to look for trapped people or otherwise survey the surroundings.
Or, in a few years, who knows what sorts of applications this robot or its progeny will think up for itself! Feel free to imagine them in your nightmares. If you want some reassurance, however, check out this gallery of a bunch of robots blowing it.