Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Self-Healing Technology and Soft Robotics

When we think of technology, whether devices, machinery, or robots, we often imagine hard surfaces, sharp lines, and noncompliant, breakable material. Indeed, the fragility of our electronics is a source of stress for many consumers, who must assess the value of additional warranties or insurance after already having made a substantial investment in the technology itself. We are all very human, and as much as we may try to convince ourselves that we will never drop our new smartphone, we probably will. Unfortunately, these mishaps force us to go through an inconvenient replacement or repair process, to upgrade earlier than expected, or to live with a cracked screen. 

Smartphone companies have begun addressing this issue through self-healing technologies, which give their devices the ability to self-heal small cracks and scratches. Indeed, Motorola and Samsung have filed patents for self-healing technology for smart phones. Self-healing technology is just one of the ways high tech can be reused and repurposed to reduce waste, and it has the potential to substantially impact and revolutionize several industries, including automobilesprosthetics, and robotics

Self-healing technology is one of the benefits of the emerging subfield of “soft robotics” or robotics comprised of compliant material that is more adaptable and mobile, and in that way mimics living organisms. It is easy to imagine the advantages of soft robotics, including better resistance to damage, adaptability to surroundings and environments, safer human-technology interactions, and an enhanced ability to mimic human actions.

For better or worse, soft robotics also offers the opportunity to more convincingly or effectively imitate, and potentially replace, humans. We have heard much about robots taking the jobs of humans, but increasingly humanoid and anthropomorphized robots are also being used to fulfill human needs in more intimate or personal ways, such as sex robots, robot caretakers, or other types of artificially-intelligent companions or service providers. 

To be truly innovative, we must often challenge the assumptions we have about technology, even down to its basic materials. Culturally, there exists a strong division between “human” and “technology,” but as technology continues to be integrated into nearly every aspect of our lives, we are moving toward a more “post-human” culture that may increasingly challenge and alter our basic assumptions about the lines between humans and technology. As Thomas Hobbes writes in Leviathan, “For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body[.]” This blurring of lines opens up new opportunities for entrepreneurs to be increasingly innovative in the field of technology without the constraints of preexisting notions about what technology is, how it looks, or what its applicability may be. 

Technology has and will continue to transform our lives, the way we interact with others, and the way we understand ourselves. Significant and important ethical considerations and debates thus should be taken into strong consideration alongside the development of much of these technologies.

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