Is the future of tools and medicine shape-shifting technology?

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The Beginning: inFORM

In 2015, Sean Follmer, human-computer interaction researcher and designer at MIT, introduced inForm: breakthrough technology developed alongside his team to create a “smart” tool able to adapt itself to the user needs. They called it, Shape-Shifting Technology.

Built with linear actuations, inFORM is a tool that is able to render both physical content and user interface elements. Able to create 3D data graphs, respond to movement, or even create entire cities of interactive architecture models, it changes its 3D display as needed and promises to be a tool that revolutionises the way we work, and the way our homes work.

Creating a visual tool like no other, inForm is able to interact with the physical world around it, recognising and responding to movement. This allows for remote distance collaborations, as with inFORM, users can simply reach out and touch objects in front of them, and the device will mimic the movement on the other party’s interface. The benefits in the current international market are obvious.

In a Nov. 26, 2013, photo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Sean Follmer demonstrates inFORM technology on campus in Cambridge, Mass. Follmer, a researcher with MIT's Tangible Media Group, moves his hands in front of a depth-sensing camera, above, which sends signals to a motorized pin screen, below, where a 3D image pops up to manipulate the red ball. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The inFORM team went further. Explaining how their ambition to create mainstream responsive furniture, and take the meaning of “smart” homes to a whole new level, they introduced their responsive table.

Using the same technology used in their work interface, the team was able to create a table that is able to respond to the environment around it and mould itself to what you need. Follmer demonstrated the uses this could bring to your home by showing how the table is able to shape itself around different objects. It can change its shape to better accommodate your laptop, thus creating an instant work environment. It can also recognise objects placed on it by their shape, identifying them by importance, such as your keys, and then able to raise them above other objects to stop you from forgetting them.

The Present: Shape-Shifting Micro-Robot

Now, shape-shifting technology has made its debut in synthetic biology. But this time, as the first ever shape-shifting robot- made from DNA and protein. Yes. You read it right.

It was developed by a research team at Tohoku University and the Japan Advanced Institute of  Science and Technology. The robot, which is able to perform important living functions, is believed to be the first step into creating a bio-inspired robot designed on a molecular basis.

science daily shapshifting molecule

Image Source: Science Daily

In the past, chemistry and synthetic biology fields have been able to integrate bio-modules into their work. However, what makes this robot unique is that the researchers were able to push the boundaries of bio-robotics further, by integrating molecular machines into artificial cell membranes, effectively creating a molecular robot.

The robot’s body is able to change shape through its integrated actuator, responsible for putting mechanical devices into motion. Thanks to the molecular clutch, and the fact that it is made from protein and DNA, the robot is able to start and stop its shape-shifting behaviour by responding to specific DNA signals. Though the molecular robot is currently extremely small in size, a millionth of a millimetre, it is a major advancement towards the world of robotics engineering, as:

it is the first molecular robot able to function in environments like the human body.

The Future: The Potential in Medicine

Much advancement has already been made over the recent years in shape-shifting technology. Scientists have progressed from working with material which needed external triggers to tell it to transform, to material which can be encoded to follow a sequence of shape shifting transformations without stimuli. Like this, they have been able to create things like synthetic flowers that bloom at pre-determined times.

These developments have major implications for medical and scientific fields. Through the creation of a micro-robot that is able to shape-shift and live in the human body, the development of the field of implants and prosthetics promises to benefit greatly. Technologies like these continue to evolve and revolutionise industries. And medicine is the field that will be most promisingly impacted by shape-shifting technology and materials.

Research into adaptation of the pre-programmed shape-shifting technology into medical applications has already begun. Scientists are working on developing implants that can deliver medicine from within the human body, or react to conditions in a predetermined manner without necessary stimuli beyond the pre-programmed. The development of shape-shifting robot by Japanese researchers seems to be the catalyst to a new age of medicine, where humans will be able to seamlessly join technology and medicine to unknown limits.