The principle of control signal amplification is found in all actuation systems, from engineered devices through to the operation of biological muscles. However, current engineering approaches require the use of hard and bulky external switches or valves, incompatible with both the properties of emerging soft artificial muscle technology and those of the bioinspired robotic systems they enable. To address this deficiency a biomimetic molecular-level approach is developed that employs light, with its excellent spatial and temporal control properties, to actuate soft, pH-responsive hydrogel artificial muscles. Although this actuation is triggered by light, it is largely powered by the resulting excitation and runaway chemical reaction of a light-sensitive acid autocatalytic solution in which the actuator is immersed. This process produces actuation strains of up to 45% and a three-fold chemical amplification of the controlling light-trigger, realising a new strategy for the creation of highly functional soft actuating systems.