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Grad student develops robot capable of doing origami

Most people can fold a piece of paper by the time they're in kindergarten, but it's not child's play for a robot, which must use complex mathematical formulas to accomplish the task.

That's why officials at Carnegie Mellon University are excited about a graduate student who has developed a robot capable of doing origami, the traditional Japanese art of folding paper to make figures or sculptures.

Origami has important research applications because although robots have been taught to manipulate rigid objects such as golf clubs, they struggle when the objects are flexible, like paper or the human tissues that surgical robots must navigate. As a result, robot origami help measure a robot's ability to manipulate flexible objects, much as playing chess has become a way of measuring a computer's intelligence and speed, Mason and Balkcom said.

Balkcom's robot may look fairly simple — a small robot arm attached to a table that's something like a sheet metal press — but every manipulation of the paper, and even the physical properties of paper itself, must be converted into the only language a robot understands: mathematics.

For example, paper might appear to be two-dimensional, because it is so thin. But it has thickness that must be expressed mathematically so that the robot can account for what happens when the paper is folded. (Answer: it gets thicker.)

As a result, the robot must be programmed to "understand" that paper can only be folded so much (about seven times is the limit), and that paper stretches ever so slightly when it is folded.

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