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Meet the MIT scholars who will change the way you look at robots

Christophe Guberan, a product designer and visiting researcher at MIT, and Skylar TibNicolaus Czarnecki/Metro

Skylar Tibbits makes things move. Or, as he prefers to say, he transforms them, turning pieces of everyday materials – strips of carbon fiber, pieces of wood, strips of cloth – into “robots” that respond to external cues like light, moisture and heat.

These are not your father’s robots. There are no clunking mechanics, buzzing motors or grinding metal.

The 29-year-old designer and MIT professor now spends his days trying to answer the question: How do you program materials to change shape, change property and change appearance?

And what does it mean for consumers? For starters, it means clothes that adapt to the weather, or car panels that morph to make the vehicle more aerodynamic. It could even mean furniture that builds itself or advanced jet engine components. On Thursday, consumers can see some of his work with programmable materials during an exhibition at MIT’s Department of Architecture.

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Tibbits has been at MIT for seven years – two as a student and five as a member of the faculty. He launched the school’s “Self-Assembly Lab" where he works to create materials that -- you guessed it -- assemble themselves.

“We want things to transform, to reconfigure, to change shape over time,” he said. “And so it’s essentially like printing smart materials.”

 
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