The team’s research showed the bot figuring out how to make a spatula out of a flat piece of metal and a magnet, and how to jam a pointed screwdriver through a sponge to create a squeegee. It also constructed a spoon, a screwdriver (out of a coin and some pliers), and a hammer, among other things. Nair said that after much refinement, it only takes the robot about 30 seconds on average to come up with a tool to complete a task.

Nair said that the team is still working on the robot, aiming to teach it about material structure, as well as form. While a long foam brick may look like a suitable object for building a hammer to the computer’s eye, a human would know that foam is soft and not right for the job.

The hope is that this work could aid people in all sorts of stressful situations, from search-and-rescue to the future of space exploration. Nair envisioned a future where robots could be used as scouts, going on ahead of humans, to create livable structures on the moon or Mars out of what’s around them, before humans get there.

Nair’s team was also inspired by the 1980s TV show MacGyver, where the titular character is known for building tools to help himself out of tricky situations using what’s in front of him. The show was recently rebooted, and it’s likely that the team’s slow, mute robotic arm would’ve made for better television than the current iteration.

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