For many of us, the thought of autonomous weapons brings to mind fears of Arnold Schwarzenegger's “Terminator” movies. Robotic feet, part of an army of robots walking on human skulls, bent on destroying a human population foolish enough to build a self-aware computer.
Arguably one of the greatest villains, not just of the “Terminator” franchise, but of all time, was actor Robert Patrick’s portrayal of the liquid metal T-1000 robot from the 1991 film “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The skeletal robotic biped Schwarzenegger controlled by Skynet might have been frightening because it seemed like something that was possible. The shapeshifting T-1000, though scary, seemed like an impossible feat of engineering. We could rest easy once the credits rolled. Until now.
The fictional T-1000 is one liquid metallic step toward reality. Researchers at China’s Tsinghua University created a liquid metal so lightweight that it can float on water, leading those same researchers to believe it could be used to create lightweight exoskeletons and shape-shifting robots.
This latest breakthrough in killing all humans builds off of research conducted at the University of Sussex and Swansea University. In 2017, researchers there found a way to morph liquid metal into two-dimensional shapes using an electric charge. The charge was controlled by a computer (because of course it was) and could be changed dynamically.
Scientists at Carnegie-Mellon University later discovered the perfect metal alloy for a T-1000, which they say can also have a number of other uses. Their combination of indium and gallium exists in liquid form at room temperature and can capacitate liquid metal transistors, flexible circuitry, and probably self-repairing circuits in the future.
The Chinese researchers used a similar mixture of indium and gallium to create their floating alloy, which uses tiny glass beads to stay afloat. Despite its liquid state, it “still maintains excellent conformability, electric conductivity, and stiffness under temperature regulation," according to their research paper.
Some readers might think we’re overreacting slightly in comparing these early developments to a full-on, shape-shifting death robot, but in the span of little more than two years, research in soft robotics has gone from moving metal around on a flat surface to a small robot man escaping from a jail cell.
A joint project between American and Chinese scientists led to the creation of a liquid metal Lego man, a human-shaped, 10-millimeter-tall “robot,” slipping through the bar of an equally small mock jail cell. Using a magnetic field, the scientists held the gallium alloy robot together, then melted it, moved it, and reformed it on the other side of the bars.
The idea behind this experiment and its creation was specifically to lead to the development of small, moving machines that could perform specific tasks while inside, say, a human body. The research wanted to see if magnetic fields could control the shape and reconfigurability of a potential machine, as it, for example, removes foreign bodies from inside a human stomach.
The days of having to avoid a T-1000 or even a T-800 are far, far in the future (we hope), but hopefully the developments of soft robotics for which this technology is intended will give humanity a host of useful benefits – before it becomes self aware and starts killing all of us.