Learning from the octopus
Scientists have become convinced over the years that the octopus is an extremely intelligent animal. They can build ‘cities’ in the ocean, open jars, use tools and escape aquariums. They are possessors of an unusually large brain, and looking an octopus in the eye can be an eerie experience akin to looking at a person.
But ‘intelligent’ in the animal kingdom doesn’t mean much when compared to humans. The octopus can hide under a coconut shell to avoid predators, but that doesn’t mean it is anywhere close to our level – however, the latest generation of engineers and designers still think there is much we can learn from our cephalopod friends.
A particularly interesting field of study is soft robotics, the development of smart materials, skins and synthetic limbs and muscles which are designed to help those who struggle with movement or injury.
As reported in Wired, a team from Bristol Robotics Laboratory has been looking to the octopus for inspiration in these areas. When it travels across the sea floor, the octopus can contract, expand, change colour and morph its shape radically by utilising a system of muscles which are embedded in the skin. As the little bundles of muscle expand and contract they change colour, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that humans could adapt this technology to create artificial skins which can increase or decrease the amount of heat we radiate.
Another interesting innovation being explored involves the central nervous system used by the octopus. We humans have our brains sequestered inside our skulls in order to offer protection from impacts and other misfortunes. On the sea bed, this is not so much of an issue; for this reason the octopus has evolved with its brain spread throughout its body. This decentralised system operates inside the materials and is inspiring the team at Bristol to create materials which can act independently and dynamically according to environmental factors.
The idea is that the smart materials being engineered can sense what is going on and react according to the situation they find themselves in, much like an octopus tentacle does. An example given is a pair of trousers which can sense when you are walking upstairs and contract in the right way as to give you extra power when going upwards and fighting against gravity.
The trend towards smart materials has been growing in fields as diverse as anti-sweat clothing and bandages which tighten or loosen when required. If we can harness what nature has provided to improve our abilities then we might all be walking a bit more lightly in the near future – and some of that might be thanks to the octopus, a unique and fascinating creature.