No, he’s not a bodybuilder. But as senior research scientist and supervisor of the Advanced Technologies Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Yoseph Bar-Cohen has muscles on his mind - artificial muscles, that is.
Technically, these are electroactive polymers that bend, stretch or shrink like biological muscles when an electric current passes through them. The hope is that they will combine with artificial intelligence to drive robotic arms that one day will be able to win an arm-wrestling match with humans.
In fact, in order to promote rapid development in the field, he posed an arm-wrestling challenge to the international scientific and engineering communities in 1999 at the first annual international conference on electroactive polymers, which he convened. “I chose to focus on armwrestling with humans in order to have our muscles as a basis for comparing performance and capability. Success in this will advance the field of medicine,” Bar-Cohen states, “including prostheses that can be very effective. We may see artificial muscles replace damaged human muscles.”
Bionic limbs and bionic people with artificial muscles - as well as robots that look and operate like real animals and humans -- are not beyond his vision of the future. “One day we may see a disabled person literally running to the grocery store using this technology,” he says. “Other goals include refreshable Braille displays and realistic, biologically inspired robots.”
But the implications go even further. “It might be possible to produce a spy-robot that mimics an octopus,” Bar-Cohen says. “Since it would not have rigid parts it would be able to slide under doors and cracks in windows and adapt its shape and colors to the surroundings.
“It may also be possible to produce an artificial dolphin that acts as a reconnaissance submarine. It will look and act very similar to a real dolphin,” he explains, “and will not be detected.”
Given his background, it’s not surprising that he would also think in terms of defense. After earning his doctorate in 1979 at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he worked for over 20 years on aerospace related research and development at McDonnell Douglas and Israel Aircraft Industry as well as the Materials Lab of the US Air Force.
The 63-year-old Bar-Cohen, who has also taught at UCLA, holds 19 patents, including an ultrasonic system that can destroy blood clots through the skin, a pump that uses no physically moving parts and a drill driven by ultrasonic vibrations weighing less than 1 lb that can drill through granite requiring only slight pressure. What good is that? Think of drilling on planets with low gravity, such as Mars.
Before 1995, he worked mostly in the field of ultrasonic waves for use in nondestructive testing of aerospace structures, making important discoveries. He subsequently expanded his research to development of miniature motors that are driven by electroactive mechanisms. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Bar-Cohen is perhaps proudest of the fact that scientists and engineers in more than 25 countries are striving to improve on today’s electroactive polymers.
Imagine a lifelike robot coming off a production line and packing itself in a cocoon of shipping material. Then think of Yoseph Bar-Cohen and his colleagues
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