THE ROBOTS ARE coming. They’re coming to drive your car, they’re coming for your job, and they’re coming for your heart. Like, you may literally have a robotic heart one day.
That is, if a peculiar new device is any indication. Researchers have developed a robotic sleeve that fits over the heart (well, a pig’s heart at the moment) and pumps like the organ would itself. The idea is that if a patient is going into cardiac arrest, the best way to help the heart is to be the heart. One day that may mean patients with cardiac problems could get their own robotic heart to kick in if their ticker starts to give way.
This is the vanguard of a new breed of robots that not only get along with humans (when was the last time you had a pleasant experience with a crushingly powerful industrial robotic arm?), but interact safely with their flesh. And it’s forcing humanity to reconsider what a robot even is in the first place—because more and more, the robots will become a part of us.
So, the heart robot. Its “muscles” are made of silicone, compressing and twisting thanks to a series of actuators powered with air. In the lab, the researchers chemically induced cardiac arrest in pigs wearing the device, then monitored the electrical output of their heartbeats. “In the study, we ended up using a pacemaker to override the electrical activity of the heart, and pace it so we were controlling the rate at which the heart beat,” says lead author Ellen Roche, a biomedical engineer at the National University of Ireland, Galway. “Then, with that same signal, we were controlling our device.” Working with the heart, the robot increased blood flow through the aorta by 50 percent.