Bionic Body

RIP to the Godfather of Robots

Marvin Minsky died last week, but his legacy—one that spans across robotics, science, and pop culture—will live forever.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Marvin Minsky, a pioneer of artificial intelligence and robotics research and co-founder of M.I.T.’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, died last Sunday.

Minsky paved the way for innumerable insights and advancements in robotics, while also leaving a mark on popular culture (Arthur Clarke references him in the book version of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stanley Kubrick consulted with him about how to portray HAL and the space pods in the film). Before Asimo, Roombas, and delivery drones, someone had to figure out how to make and control all of those moving parts. Minsky was one of those people.

In 1968, Minsky developed a robotic tentacle arm. Perhaps Minsky was inspired by Doctor Octopus in The Amazing Spider-Man, or perhaps he realized that tentacles can do more than arms, as they’re not hampered by a single hinge joint. Minsky ate electro-hydraulic system challenges for breakfast, and designed a 12-jointed tentacle that he could control with a joystick (or a computer, but that’s not as fun).

Even though the tentacle arm wasn’t that big, it was strong enough that Minsky’s secretary could sit on it like a swing. At the same time, it was “gentle enough to embrace a child.” Somehow, Minsky found a kid willing to be hugged by this device, which only looked like it might squeeze the life out of her.

The tentacle arm could be outfitted with a sleeve that covered up its mechanical bones or a hand. Given astounding advancements in bionic hands, and Luke Skywalker’s cybernetic recovery from a rough lightsaber duel, one might think that was the most noteworthy aspect of Minsky’s design—but Minsky’s real insight was about the utility of tentacles.

Scientists design robots with tentacles instead of conventional arms more often than one might think. Contrary to our typical perception of robots as metallic and rigid, the recent soft robot trend gleans inspiration from animals such as the octopus, whose intelligence isn’t just cognitive. The nervous system of an octopus allows it to change color, shape, and texture to blend with its environment in less than a second. Robots possessing such abilities could go just about anywhere and find just about anything—and keep it all a secret, if necessary.

In 2009, researchers at the BioRobotics Institute in Italy embarked on a €10 million project to develop a robotic octopus that could explore the ocean floor by worming its way into crevices and crannies, and eventually perform underwater rescues. The team first developed a soft artificial tentacle made from steel and nylon cables wrapped in silicon that can stretch and bend in any direction, as well as sense and grasp nearby objects. Later they created the entire robo-octopus, the first entirely soft robot, which while groundbreaking looks a little too spidery for comfort when it’s crawling around.

When tentacles move in synchronicity, they’re more efficient than legs (ever tried to outswim an octopus?). Once roboticists figured out how to make soft tentacle robots, they focused on making them move like their cephalopod counterparts. In addition to testing out various sculling techniques, Greek researchers added webbing between the tentacles, which nearly doubles their speed. This particular robot took a dip in the Aegean sea, where it quickly gained a fishy following, suggesting that another benefit of these robots is their ability to conduct research and interact with ocean life without scaring or damaging it, which is particularly important with regards to coral reefs.

Since the first generation of octopus-inspired robots, scientists have refined their designs. In 2015, Iowa State University engineers developed a centimeter-wide robot with tiny tentacles made from an elastomer (a rubbery elastic polymer). These tentacles are so small, precise, and gentle that they can lasso an ant without injuring it or curl around a fish egg without breaking it. Or a blood vessel. That’s right—someday, these tiny tentacles might be used in delicate surgeries, along with bigger tentacles that can adjust their shape and size to fit around organs.

Robotic tentacles can also be snake-like, which allows them to wriggle into tight or dangerous spaces on land. Other recent developments include soft robots that can, like cephalopods, change color. It’s not too surprising that we’d create Houdini-like robots that can master the art of camouflage, but don’t be surprised if one of these days, researchers find an empty lab and perhaps a pool of ink, having been beaten at their own game.