‘Scientific research is not the only way to discover new technologies’

5 Dec 2018

Dr Carmel Majidi, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the Soft Machines Lab. Image: CMU

Dr Carmel Majidi is attempting to create ‘artificial’ skin and soft machines inspired by the natural world.

After completing his bachelor of science in civil and environmental engineering in 2001 at Cornell University, engineer Dr Carmel Majidi went on to complete a master’s in electrical engineering and computer sciences in 2004, as well as a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007.

He went on to complete two postdoctoral fellowships at Princeton University and Harvard University, respectively, before taking up an associate professor role at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in 2011. Majidi now heads a research group called the Soft Machines Lab, dedicated to creating new types of materials that allow machines, electronics and robots to be soft and ‘squishy’.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was inspired to become a researcher by my mum, who is a retired professor of mechanical engineering. She specialises in composite materials and has always been driven by a fascination with how materials can endow objects with functionality, beauty and meaning. This ranges from the ceramics in archaeological objects, to the semiconductors in modern-day technologies.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I’m interested in building machines and robots that match the extraordinary ability of natural organisms to change shape, adapt their functionality and recover from damage. This has led me to work on new types of materials that allow sensors, electronics and actuators to share the same properties as natural skin, nervous tissue and muscle.

In particular, my research team and I have been focused on creating ‘artificial’ skin and muscle using almost entirely compliant materials and fluids. I’ve always been interested in machines and robots that are inspired by biology, and this current focus on soft machines represents just one area of interest within the broader field of bioinspired engineering.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Scientific research is not the only way to discover new technologies. There have been plenty of great discoveries that have also come about through tinkering, trial and error, and hacking things.

However, major discoveries like the Wright Flyer and field-effect transistor came about through a combination of practical implementation and fundamental scientific understanding. When dealing with hard problems where there is a vast range of ways that a system or solution attempt can fail, it really helps to have some type of scientific insight.

Research involves a process of attempting solutions while simultaneously gathering and strengthening our insights in order to improve our chances of success.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

The artificial skin and muscle materials that we are developing could be used to create technologies for human-machine interaction that are more immersive.

This could include sticker-like wearable electronics that track your motion and physiological state without being bulky or impairing your motion. Another application could be wearable haptic devices that provide some mechanical feedback to your body in coordination with a virtual reality or augmented reality experience.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Research tends to be very interdisciplinary; it brings together many different scientific fields and engineering practices. My biggest challenge has been to become familiar with all of the different topics in materials engineering, chemistry, computer science, computational modelling and biology that are relevant for creating soft machines.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Usually, people think that robotics is a sub-field of computer science, and that the important challenges in mechanics and hardware have been solved. However, as we increasingly expect robots to act like humans or natural organisms, there is a need to revisit how these machines are engineered and what materials to use.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I’m particularly excited about creating ‘bio-hybrid’ robots that combine engineering materials with natural biological tissue. There are researchers at CMU and elsewhere who are already doing this. Beyond leading to more lifelike machines, these bio-hybrid systems could have transformative impact in regenerative medicine and medical technologies.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.