Erik Demaine thinks the technology behind his self-folding printable robots could one day evolve into biomedical devices that deliver cancer-killing drugs. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Former Halifax child prodigy grows up to design self-folding origami robots

HALIFAX — A Halifax-born former child prodigy has proven he can do just about anything with a piece of paper.

Erik Demaine, a 37-year-old MIT computer science professor, thinks the technology behind his self-folding printable robots could one day evolve into downloadable smartphones, biomedical devices that deliver cancer-killing drugs, and even gadgets that could take on any form.

But to Demaine, it’s all an extension of origami.

“When we started working in computational origami, we didn’t expect it to have lots of applications. It was just because it seemed cool … (and) maybe we could make better art this way,” he said.

“As a surprise, all these engineering applications came around … It’s been a lot of fun to watch that evolution from sort of more pure art and mathematics, to more applied stuff.”

On Thursday, Demaine returned to Dalhousie University, where he enrolled as an undergraduate student at 12 years old, to celebrate his alma mater’s 200th anniversary with the unveiling of a curve-creased origami sculpture he and his father forged from the pages of a book detailing the school’s history.

As an 18-year-old PhD student at the University of Waterloo, Demaine developed an algorithm that could determine how to fold a piece of paper into any 3D shape, before moving to Cambridge, Mass., to become the youngest professor ever hired by MIT at age 20.

Still, he said, the mathematics behind the sculpture’s interlocking concentric circles continue to evade him.

When Demaine embarks on a project, he said he does not know if it is going to produce a mathematical solution or a work of art. He is happy either way, but often one contributes to the other.

“The more we play with math and art, the more we think of them as the same thing,” he said. “You start with something you’d like to solve on the math side, or something you’d like to build, say, on the sculpture side, and you have to come up with creative ways to actually make that happen.”

Demaine said he and his father have been working together to explore the interface between math and art since he was six years old, when they co-founded the Erik and Dad Puzzle Company, which had sales in toy stores across Canada.

In some ways, the father-son duo is still tinkering with toys, but ones that could have profound implications, said Demaine.

Self-folding printable robots are built out of layered sheets of material, which are laminated together and cut with a laser, Demaine explained. He said the internal layers often consist of electronics and a structural material like paper, which are sandwiched between the same plastic material used in the children’s toy Shrinky Dinks.

The flat sheet of material will contract when exposed to heat, causing it to fold in along its creases to form a 3D robot. The robot’s movements can be controlled by a motor or a magnetic field.

While printable robots are less durable than traditional robots, Demaine said they are far cheaper to build, often costing only tens of dollars, and can be assembled in a matter of hours rather than years.

“The exciting thing about printable robots is that you can build custom robots, and a different robot every day,” he said. “For robot designers, it lets them iterate on designs really fast.”

MIT has helped develop a one-centimetre-long, biodegradable robot that takes on a frog-like form to waddle across surfaces and swim.

These robots could theoretically be ingested and navigate their way through the body so they would only release a cancer-killing drug when they reach a tumour, killing the disease without harming other organs, said Demaine.

Another possible application of the technology would be to build “programmable matter,” which would allow people to update their smartphones by downloading hardware rather than software. Rather than buy a new smartphone, he said, the older model would change its form into the latest design.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to create a ”universal gadget” that can contort itself into any form, whether it be a bicycle, a laptop or even a room.

“It could be one gadget that could form any shape that you need,” he said. “You won’t have to carry as many things around, and you can be more versatile for whatever you don’t expect to happen.”

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