The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Electric Flex

Electrically activated plastic muscles will let robots smile, arm-wrestle, and maybe even fly like bugs

11 min read

I ISSUED A CHALLENGE a few years ago to my fellow researchers: build a robot using muscles of electrically activated polymers that could arm-wrestle a human. I was trying to jump-start research in the field of electroactive polymers, or artificial muscles, and given the state of the art at the time, I didn't really expect to see the challenge fulfilled for a couple of decades.

I was wrong. A little over a year ago, researchers from SRI International, a research institute in Menlo Park, Calif., told me that their technology could be capable of meeting the challenge. Since then, Environmental Robots Inc. and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research informed me that they would be ready to compete less than a year from now! I couldn't be more delighted--even if it means that my obligations as an impresario are a lot closer than I'd envisioned.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions

Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

Keep Reading ↓Show less