Japan Has the Key to the Next Evolution of Robots: Wrapping Them in Human Skin

  • Engineered skin has properties like human skin. All it needs is a good bond with the robot to take us into the uncanny valley.

  • The next step is to make it sweat, bleed, and heal.

Japan has the key to the next evolution of robots: Wrapping them in human skin
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While they might still be awesome, with each new video more spectacular than the last, Boston Dynamics' robots no longer impress—at least not as much as they used to. Some are looking to the future for less specific but more versatile humanoid creations, like Elon Musk’s Optimus or the impressive Figure 01. The problem is that we still see them as robots. But what if someone created a skin for them?

University of Tokyo researcher Shoji Takeuchi is trying to create hyper-realistic robots with human-like skin. His latest project could revolutionize the aesthetics of these machines and research in fields like medicine.

Living skin. Takeuchi is a biohybrid systems researcher who has spent years studying how to integrate living tissue elements into robots. One of his achievements has been integrating “living” muscles into robots to give them joint movements that more closely resemble those of humans.

Some researchers have an obsession with improving synthetic and engineered skin to make these robots more like us. The University of Tokyo presented an artificial skin with thermal and pressure sensors for robots almost 20 years ago, something that has been perfected over the years. Today, synthetic skins are even capable of feeling pain.

Improving connections. In one of the University of Tokyo’s recent studies—which focused on designing 3D flesh with self-healing capabilities, something other centers are also investigating)—Takeuchi and his team realized they could take the synthetic skin’s capabilities a step further. “During previous research on a finger-shaped robot covered in engineered skin tissue we grew in our lab, I felt the need for better adhesion between the robotic features and the subcutaneous structure of the skin,” Takeuchi said.

The engineered skin tissue and the way it adheres to the underlying complex structure of the robot

Until now, attaching this tissue to the robot’s solid surface involved elements including tiny hooks, which limited the robot’s movements too much. The problem was that if the robot suddenly moved beyond what the elasticity of the attachment point itself would allow, the skin would tear.

Just like us. The solution? Look at our joints. Human skin comprises several layers, including the epidermis, dermis, and fat tissue, which are attached to the muscle by a series of ligaments. Inspired by this structure, Takeuchi’s team developed a V-shaped anchor system that connects the robot’s structure to a collagen-based synthetic skin.

Engineered skin tissue

“The natural flexibility of the skin and the strong method of adhesion mean the skin can move with the mechanical components of the robot without tearing or peeling away,” Takeuchi said. As such, the method allows researchers to apply the skin to virtually any surface—the trick is to use a collagen gel for adhesion. This gel is viscous, so the team used a plasma that attracts it to the micro-perforations of the anchors. It allows the collagen stays in place, and the skin effect on the robotic surface is optimal.

Beyond aesthetics. The result is skin tissue that researchers can put over 2D and 3D solid structures on complex, curved, and moving surfaces without degradation. The smiling face the researchers created is one example. Takeuchi doesn’t deny that it’s a way to develop more human-looking robots. Though that smiley face is a bit creepy, the practical applications are more attractive.

For example, the team in charge of this project envisions that other experts could apply this development to artificial organs. This would allow the aesthetic and pharmaceutical industries to study skin aging, surgical procedures, plastic surgery, and cosmetics. Another advance would be the integration of sensors that would give robots more interactive capabilities.

The new anchoring method allows flexible skin tissue to conform to any shape it’s attached to

The healing problem. However, a multitude of agents could damage the exposed skin. In humans, this is a minor problem because the cells responsible for repair are incredibly good at their job, but with synthetic skin, it’s more complicated. Takeuchi acknowledges that self-healing is a big problem but points out that some materials can heal themselves. Still, they require a trigger such as heat, pressure, or an electrical impulse.

These robots also don’t have cells that are capable of healing like we do. Their biological skin can repair minor cuts, and even if they add nerves to detect where a break has occurred, healing is a problem experts must solve.

The researchers aren’t satisfied. While it may seem impressive to see that creepy little smiling face in a more realistic way than ever before, Takeuchi and his team don’t plan to stop there: “Additionally, through this research, we identified new challenges, such as the necessity for surface wrinkles and a thicker epidermis to achieve a more human-like appearance. We believe that creating a thicker and more realistic skin can be achieved by incorporating sweat glands, sebaceous glands, pores, blood vessels, fat, and nerves.”

In short, they aim to create a skin that is an exact copy of human skin. Who knows? This might be a step towards artificial tissue that doctors can use in humans with injuries. For now, Takeuchi hasn't seemed to consider this use case. His goal is to create robots with more realistic movements and expressions thanks to their sophisticated muscle systems that are able to heal themselves, accurately sense their environment, and deftly perform human tasks.

Images | Elsevier

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