The classical view of a robot as a mechanical body with a central “brain” that controls its behavior could soon be on its way out. The authors of a recent article in Science Robotics argue that future robots will have intelligence distributed throughout their bodies.

The concept, and the emerging discipline behind it, are variously referred to as “material robotics” or “robotic materials” and are essentially a synthesis of ideas from robotics and materials science. Proponents say advances in both fields are making it possible to create composite materials capable of combining sensing, actuation, computation, and communication and operating independently of a central processing unit.

Much of the inspiration for the field comes from nature, with practitioners pointing to the adaptive camouflage of the cuttlefish’s skin, the ability of bird wings to morph in response to different maneuvers, or the banyan tree’s ability to grow roots above ground to support new branches.

Adaptive camouflage and morphing wings have clear applications in the defense and aerospace sector, but the authors say similar principles could be used to create everything from smart tires able to calculate the traction needed for specific surfaces to grippers that can tailor their force to the kind of object they are grasping.

“Material robotics represents an acknowledgment that materials can absorb some of the challenges of acting and reacting to an uncertain world,” the authors write. “Embedding distributed sensors and actuators directly into the material of the robot’s body engages computational capabilities and offloads the rigid information and computational requirements from the central processing system.”

The idea of making materials more adaptive is not new, and there are already a host of “smart materials” that can respond to stimuli like heat, mechanical stress, or magnetic fields by doing things like producing a voltage or changing shape. These properties can be carefully tuned to create materials capable of a wide variety of functions such as movement, self-repair, or sensing.

The authors say synthesizing these kinds of smart materials, alongside other advanced materials like biocompatible conductors or biodegradable elastomers, is foundational to material robotics. But the approach also involves integration of many different capabilities in the same material, careful mechanical design to make the most of mechanical capabilities, and closing the loop between sensing and control within the materials themselves.

While there are stand-alone applications for such materials in the near term, like smart fabrics or robotic grippers, the long-term promise of the field is to distribute decision-making in future advanced robots. As they are imbued with ever more senses and capabilities, these machines will be required to shuttle huge amounts of control and feedback data to and fro, placing a strain on both their communication and computation abilities.

Materials that can process sensor data at the source and either autonomously react to it or filter the most relevant information to be passed on to the central processing unit could significantly ease this bottleneck. In a press release related to an earlier study, Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder who is also an author of the current paper, pointed out this is a tactic used by the human body.

“The human sensory system automatically filters out things like the feeling of clothing rubbing on the skin,” he said. “An artificial skin with possibly thousands of sensors could do the same thing, and only report to a central ‘brain’ if it touches something new.”

There are still considerable challenges to realizing this vision, though, the authors say, noting that so far the young field has only produced proof of concepts. The biggest challenge remains manufacturing robotic materials in a way that combines all these capabilities in a small enough package at an affordable cost.

Luckily, the authors note, the field can draw on convergent advances in both materials science, such as the development of new bulk materials with inherent multifunctionality, and robotics, such as the ever tighter integration of components.

And they predict that doing away with the prevailing dichotomy of “brain versus body” could lay the foundations for the emergence of “robots with brains in their bodies—the foundation of inexpensive and ubiquitous robots that will step into the real world.”