Octopuses offer an extreme engineering challenge: They are almost infinitely flexible, entirely soft-bodied and incredibly intelligent. Are we vertebrate humans ever going to be able to build anything as deformable and complex as a real octopus?

Carmel Majidi, of the Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, explored this question in a recent paper in the journal Soft Robotics. "Like an octopus squeezing through a narrow opening," he wrote, "a soft robot must adapt its shape and locomotion strategy for a broad range of tasks, obstacles and environmental conditions." That's not exactly C-3PO.

Our rigid robotics have come a long way since mid-20th-century Jetsonlike imaginings. Many are now capable of extremely nuanced tasks and coordinated efforts, including running like a cheetah. But they also hold us back from expanding far outside of specialized mechanical tasks—and into the everyday human world, such as in the operating room or even functioning as second skins. Carmel envisions a world where next-gen robots are "elastically soft and capable of safely interacting with humans or navigating through tightly constrained environments."

And this softness is not just a plush covering. A purely soft robot is, like an octopus, almost entirely flexible. That means no traditional microprocessors or servomotors. As Carmel noted: like an octopus, "a soft robot must be elastically deformable and capable of maneuvering through confined spaces without inducing damaging internal pressures and stress concentrations."

These are serious challenges. The Octopus Integrating Project, based in Italy, has perhaps come the furthest in mimicking in robotic form an actual octopus's physical capabilities. But they still have only made it to the arms of the animal so far. The body remains full of hard components.

But the work continues. And it must. "Soft robotics represents an exciting new paradigm in engineering," Carmel wrote. It is one "that challenges us to reexamine the materials and mechanisms that we use to make machines and robots so that they are more versatile, lifelike, and compatible for human interaction."

And if we manage to get it right, these soft-bodied bots—eight-armed or not— "could revolutionize the role of robotics in healthcare, field exploration and cooperative human assistance," he noted. Thanks, octopuses. Let's just hope the robots don't gain consciousness, too.

Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen