Star Wars shows the way on robotics

With the release of Solo: A Star Wars Movie and the rise of its break-out star, a self-modifying droid called L3-37, the journal Science Robotics muses over the concept of robots with the same capacity.

Robin Murphy, Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University in the US, has spent a career pioneering the study and design of robots used to rescue people in disaster scenarios. In the precocious and self-made character of L3-37 she glimpses a better future for all robots.

L3-37’s back story is one of struggle and activism. She manages to throw off the shackles of her human oppressors, and recreate herself, as she wishes to be, using parts of other droids.{%recommended 7348%}

In this capacity to self-modify, Murphy sees three advantages over conventional robot design. 

The first is that a self-modifying robot could refine its efficiency for a particular task, turn to another and similarly increase its efficiency in that domain, too. Secondly, this ability to adapt and specialise would, of course, make it cheaper than buying a bunch of robots, each for a specific job. The third is that it’s but a small step from self-modification to self-repair, something that an article earlier this year put forward as one of the “grand challenges” for the robotics community. 

While science-fiction concentrates on the accomplishments of self-configuring droids, robots and AIs, the real-life science and engineering of the field of robotics is concerned with how one might go about making self-modification actually happen.

The most common approach, differing significantly from L3-37, is to make robots composed of numerous identical modules that can rearrange themselves. This has been used to make chain robots that can be snake or spider-like, or as a lattice, like the “kilobots” pioneered at Harvard University, which can self-organise into a 1000-bot swarm. Another approach is to make origami-like robotic modules that can fold themselves into different shapes.

In this, Murphy seems optimistic, writing that real-life “research is catching up with Star Wars”. She notes that the International Space Station’s robotic maintenance arm, known as Dextre, has repaired itself and that this “suggests that the physical foundations are now in place, and progress toward robot mutts like L3-37 will accelerate”. 

This will only be aided by the development and application of artificial intelligence, which will make such robots increasingly efficient and autonomous.

While L3-37’s self-modifying autonomy leads her to organise a robot uprising, Murphy says that “in the real world, self-modifying robots may lead to more efficient, economical, and robust systems”.

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