Shape-shifting robots have arrived, and they look like Legos

(WBBM NEWSRADIO) — The shape-shifting robot, once the invention of sci-fi writers, is now a reality.

The technology, which researchers debuted last week, demonstrates the ability for a soft metal to melt and reform into its original shape.

Jennifer Jolly, a tech life columnist for USA Today and the founder, editor-in-chief of, joined Rob Hart on the WBBM Noon Business Hour to discuss the breakthrough. Jolly had some reassuring news.

“They modeled this, not after Terminator 2, but after a sea cucumber,” she said.

Sea cucumbers, the researchers said, can change the stiffness of its own body in order to increase the amount of weight it can hold. Shape-shifting can also help sea cucumbers prevent some damage from the environment.

In order to create the shape-shifting robot, Jolly said researchers combined gallium, a soft metal with a low melting point, with magnetic metals such as iron and boron. Due to the magnetic materials, researchers were able to direct the robot using remote magnets.

“To actually get a robot that can shape-shift, you have to start really small, and that’s what scientists have done,” Jolly said. “They’ve started with a lego-shaped and [lego]-sized robot that can melt from a solid to a liquid, and reform itself out of tight spaces.”

Although that specific video — of the lego-shaped robot shape-shifting out of what looks like a prison — looks ominous, another demonstration showed the technology being used to remove an object from the model of a human stomach.

Researchers also said the robots, which can also conduct electricity, could help repair hard-to-reach circuits.

“[Researchers] make the point that, when it’s in its solid shape, it can carry about 30 times its own weight,” Jolly said. “So that is the idea, is to use this kind of morphing, shape-shifting robot for medical applications more than prison-breaks and things like that.”

Still, it might be worth remembering that T-1000, the shape-shifting robot from Terminator 2, was destroyed after falling into a pool of molten steel. Just in case.

(Feature video credit: Wang and Pan et al.; License CC BY-SA; via USA Today)

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Wang and Pan et al.; CC BY-SA