Who says you need opposable thumbs to assemble objects or operate complex machinery? Empire Robotics has been working on the plush sphere of the future with their so-called "jamming-based robot grippers," otherwise known as the Versaball system.
The system works like a balloon filled with molasses that can flow around an object and then lock into place, allowing it to twist open cans, change lightbulbs, handle sharp objects, and even build small LEGO towers.
The one-piece-grips-all approach helps to avoid the traditional mechanical difficulties of multiple, individual digits—which can be expensive and difficult to control—and instead opts for something as simple as pressurised air and an undisclosed granular substance inside the balloon.
While this is useful for any number of industrial settings, of course—such as factories and perhaps even automated construction sites—as Popular Science explains, the most interesting potential might be use in human prosthetics.
Empire Robotics is currently working on "a limb-compatible version of the Versaball," PopSci explains. However, they are then very quick to dismiss the tactile quality of this experience—arguing, without any particular evidence, that "a mushy, rubberised stump that can latch onto a car door handle will always be inferior to a human hand"—but I would be a tad more optimistic here when it comes to the adaptive capabilities of humans and our willingness to explore new user interfaces for our own bodies, so to speak.
Surely, for example, the running blades designed by Össur seemed just as alien when they debuted, but they are now an officially recognised part of the Olympic Games.
It is no doubt surreal, then, and more like something straight out of sci-fi, to imagine future humans navigating the physical world—even building their own LEGO towers and replacing lightbulbs—using nothing but prothetic Versaball grippers, but it is also oddly wonderful and an amazing sign of where prosthetic technology might yet take us. [Popular Science]