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Soft Pavilions 2
Soft Robot

Watching this soft robot from the folks at DARPA momentarily morphs into something suggesting a domed canopy during its slow and jerky pneumatic migration, surely one can't help but suggest that it should be scaled up, perhaps into something that can accommodate a lecture series event. Flip it over, and you only need water for a swimming pool. Lay it flat, and you've got an outdoor stage or a bouncy playground. Nomadic pop-ups for our biosynthetic future.

But since this post is really a revision of my earlier Soft Pavilions, imagine them at the slightly grander scale of vacation retreats, or more specifically, beachfront McMansions. At the start of summer, or when their multi-billionaire owners and families are en route, a herd of soft robots will emerge from their off-season hibernation in the dunes and crawl out to their lot by the sea. Once there, they fuse together and form a colony of spatial zooids. By regulating the liquids flowing through their built-in hydraulic buttresses, they can adjust their temperature and change colors (ranging from birds-of-paradise flamboyance to tactical camouflage). They can also glow through chemiluminescence.

At the end of the season, these polyps will detach from each other and burrow back into the sand, returning the beach its rolling dunescapes. If a major hurricane is on the way and digging in might not offer enough protection, some may escape into the waters, while others head further inland where they may be corralled into shelters. Returning back to the shore after the storm has passed, they may yet again serve as emergency centers.

You could think of these DARPA biothings as post-natural elaborations of the small dune-sheltered cottages that used to be quite common on coastal lands, particularly on the barrier islands. When needed to be moved, they could be jacked up, rolled on logs, and shipped to the mainland on barges. Considering the all too familiar devastation of Hurricane Sandy and the growing specter of depleted federal funds for reconstruction, this resilient strategy of retreat and settlement should inform any future policy on coastal development.

Soft Robot

In the meantime, consider all these Soft Pavilions made not just of silicone but grafted with the muscle cells of rat hearts, perhaps culled from rats captured escaping tunnels flooded by hurricanes. Instead of hibernating in the dunes, these “chimaeric systems of living and non-living components” swim about in the oceans — medusoid McMansions frolicking like a smack of jellyfishes, pumping and flexing to the psychosexual beats of Rachel Armstong, until called up to the surface to make temporary camp.

Replace the cells from rats with that from its morphological kin, the immortal jellyfish, and “[i]t is possible to imagine a distant future in which most other species of life are extinct but the ocean [and coastlines] will consist overwhelmingly of immortal [McMansions], a great gelatin consciousness everlasting.”

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