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article imageWorld’s first fully functioning rubber computer developed

By Tim Sandle     Apr 8, 2019 in Science
A computer composed of rubber and air has been developed, taking the development of soft electronics in a new direction. The computer functions in the same way and the to same capacity as an electronic computer.
The new invention from Harvard University uses ‘soft’ digital logic to replicate the functionality of an electronic computer together with the feel of a human hand. It follows on from earlier innovations with soft robotics.
Soft robotics is a subfield of robotics which looks at constructing robots from highly compliant materials, similar to those found in living organisms. These types of robots carry significant potential for use in several fields, ranging from medicine and manufacturing.
According to lead researcher Daniel J. Preston, with the soft computer: “We're emulating the thought process of an electronic computer, using only soft materials and pneumatic signals, replacing electronics with pressurized air.”
The new project takes how computers make decisions, through logic gates, electronic inputs and outputs, and replicates the circuitry using soft mechanics. The soft computer uses silicone tubing and pressurized air.
For the logic gates, the researchers used the minimum types of logic gates needed to run Boolean functions for computer operations (NOT, AND and OR) and programmed the soft valves to react to different air pressures.
For example, with the NOT logic gate, if the input was at a high pressure, the output was at a low pressure. Through this the researchers succeeded in replicating each possible behavior that any electronic computer can undertake.
In terms of how this technology can be used, the computers could work to control robots used for specialist activities, such as soft robots used to make repairs or to undertake investigations. Another area is where humans and robots need to work closely together, as in the manufacturing industry. If a human collides with a hard robot, the person can become injured; whereas colliding with a soft robot is less likely to result in human harm.
A further area is where the sensitivity of soft robots is called for, such as assessing the quality of fruit and vegetables on packing lines. Such robots can also be used flexibly where there is danger to humans, such as where a radiation leak has occurred. An advantage in terms of scale is that soft robots will be cheaper to manufacture that hard robots.
The research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with the research paper titled “Digital logic for soft devices.”
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