These tiny origami robots blur the line between art and science [Sticky or Not]

They might also be able to enter the body and fight disease in the future

While there’s often a strong distinction placed between art and science, a better relationship between the two would be one of mutual support.

It’s that opinion that drives much of Erik Demaine‘s thinking. Demaine is a 37-year-old MIT computer science professor and former child prodigy from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Demaine enrolled at Dalhousie University at age 12, became a PhD student at the University of Waterloo at age 18 and the youngest MIT professor ever at age 20.

For much of his career, Demaine’s work has focused on paper-folding. As a PhD student he developed an algorithm that could determine how to fold a piece of paper into any 3D shape.

Lately, he’s been working on self-folding printable robots, recently speaking to The Canadian Press on this project.

The robots are built of layered sheets of material, laminated together and cut with a laser. The internal layers often consist of electronics and paper, sandwiched between the same plastic material used in Shrinky Dinks.

The flat sheet of material contracts when exposed to heat, causing it to fold in along its creases and form into a 3D robot all by itself. The movements of the little bot are then controlled by a motor or magnetic field.

While they aren’t very durable, there are several upsides to these robots. They cost only tens of dollars, can be assembled in a matter of hours and can be made biodegradable.

MIT helped develop a one-centimetre-long biodegradable robot that has a frog-like form that can waddle and swim. Demaine hopes that one day these robots could be ingested and target cancerous tumours in the body without harming surrounding organs.

He also hope that this sort of printable tech could allow people to download hardware, making consumer tech more long-lasting by allowing to evolve and change physical shape.

Verdict: Sticky.

Anyone who follows Sticky or Not knows I often have problems with robot stuff — from robot bees to robot skin. The fact that this robot can construct itself is similarly unnerving, but I love the fact there’s an environmental conscience to this project, with its biodegradable and recyclable potential.

As far as robots go, these seem much less likely to induce a doomsday scenario than most of the projects I cover. And if their life-saving potential becomes realized? You can’t get stickier than that.

Note: This post is part of an ongoing series titled Sticky or Not in which Senior Reporter Rose Behar analyzes new and often bizarre gadgets, rating them sticky (good) or not (bad).