Robots in the future may be able to transform themselves into the right shapes and units to suit a job at hand. Researchers at the University of the West of England in Bristol are working on hordes of cube-sized electronic units which can communicate and assemble themselves into larger machines.

The tiny units can transmit information to one another electronically to come out with the best response in a particular situation or the solution to a problem. If the circumstances call for speed and movement, the machine might transform itself into a fast rolling ball. In a rubble-filled environment, the robot will convert itself into a four-legged creature which can clamber and crawl. The individual units can also detect temperature change or thermal signature from bodies. In addition, the machine can even learn from mistakes: it will test out various strategies, analyse their effectiveness and then adopt the best.

While robots in the past have been stiff and jerky, designed to suit particular tasks or situations, the more flexible and fluid smart machines are the answer to many problems in the twenty-first century. Modelled after the worker of today – smart, multi-tasking, adaptable and mobile – the robots can make themselves useful even in dangerous and unpredictable situations including searching for survivors in bombed sites or natural disaster areas, and gathering data in nuclear plants or distant planets.

Machines which can think will revolutionise our life and society. Will they make many problems we face today seem insignificant and trivial? On the other hand, will these smart robots take over our lives one day? While the technology may not be available yet in years, the continuous research and development to produce smart robots will lead to more advanced and creative machines.