Who says that a chemist can’t invent a robot? This is precisely what George M. Whitesides and his colleagues at Harvard University have in mind.
“Imagine a robot with arms that are soft, flexible—and yet strong. Such a robot would be able to solve many of the challenges associated with caring for the growing numbers of elderly and sick. As time goes on, this has become an issue of personal interest to me,” smiles Whitesides, who was born in 1939.
“Nurses and home carers need support and assistance, but the task is very complex. To date, there are no robots that can match human hands.”
He places his right hand down on the table with the palm facing up—using the left hand to pinpoint the underlying structures—veins, muscles, bones.
“The human hand is an amazing instrument. It can perform intricate movements involving delicate objects as well as strenuous tasks such as delivering a heavy hammer blow. Traditional hard robots can’t cover that entire spectrum. Our idea is to find inspiration in the animal kingdom.”
Inspired by octopuses
In particular, the research team is drawing inspiration from the ten-armed octopus.
“Firstly, it manages without a skeleton—and secondly, the ten-armed octopus has two tentacles that possess many of the properties we are looking for. We asked ourselves whether it was possible to imitate the tentacles’ structure—and actually it turned out to be relatively easy.”
Despite being the world’s most cited living chemist, George Whitesides cannot simply send a new script to a scientific journal and expect to have it published.
“We had a really hard time getting our first scientific article on robotics published. While it is unconventional for chemists to invent robots, the idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. There’s no doubt that achieving our vision will require breakthroughs in materials research. Such breakthroughs will involve a lot of chemistry. More specifically, they will require the exploitation of new methods of organic chemistry. Nevertheless, several sources suggested we were mad. Luckily, I’ve reached an age where I don’t care what other people think!”
Precisely this attitude caused friction among his colleagues in 2011. Around the world, the International Year of Chemistry was celebrated with speeches and articles paying tribute to the subject’s importance for modern society. However, together with John M. Deutch—fellow chemist, former US Deputy Minister of Defence, and former CIA Director—Whitesides elected to write an article in Nature highlighting several problems in the way in which universities conduct chemical research.
Break out of departmental bunker
In their article, Whitesides and Deutch argue that academic chemistry has been split up in too many subfields that enjoy too little collaboration. They recommend moving in the exact opposite direction—letting chemistry work together with other disciplines.
“Instead of designing projects that extend existing research, we should base projects on solving the challenge in question. The robots for the care and nursing sector is a good example. We began with the challenge and threw ourselves into solving it, even though in principle we had no advance knowledge of the area.”
George Whitesides’ career is characterized by a high degree of interdisciplinary research. His name is linked to such different disciplines as NMR spectroscopy, organometallic chemistry, molecular self-assembly, soft lithography, microsystems, and nanotechnology. Last—but not least—about every ten years he has made significant changes, searching for solutions to completely different problems.