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Monday, July 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Humanoid robots could be here sooner than you think

Researchers say they've found a way to bind engineered skin to robot faces.

(CN) — For the last century, Hollywood has imagined a future where robots are indistinguishable from humans. That future could be here closer than you might think.

A group of Japanese researchers say they have figured out a way to bind "engineered skin tissue," grown in a lab, to moveable solid objects, including the bodies and even faces of humanoid robots.

The team was led by Professor Shoji Takeuchi of the University of Tokyo, a pioneer in a field that sounds like something straight out of science fiction — "biohybrid robotics," a study at the nexus of biology and mechanical engineering. His lab, the Biohybrid Systems Laboratory, has already created, among other things, 3D-printed lab-grown meat, engineered skin that can heal, and a "shuffling robot" that "uses biological muscle to move and spin."

This new creation, a robot face that has the capability of human-like expressions, such as smiling, can also heal itself, much like real skin, according to a paper Tuesday in the journal "Cell Reports Physical Science," of which Takeuchi was the lead author.

"Living skin can bring a range of new abilities to robots," said Takeuchi, in a written statement. "Self-healing is a big deal — some chemical-based materials can be made to heal themselves, but they require triggers such as heat, pressure or other signals, and they also do not proliferate like cells. Biological skin repairs minor lacerations as ours does, and nerves and other skin organs can be added for use in sensing and so on.”

Getting skin to attach to moveable objects has always been an engineering challenge. Previous efforts used mini anchors or hooks, but these led to the skin becoming damaged when the solid surface begins moving, as is the case with a robot. Takeuchi and his team designed tiny "V-shaped perforations" in solid surfaces to hold the skin in place. They also used a special collagen gel for extra adhesion.

A diagram comparing human skin, left, with the newly developed artificial skin grafted on to a robot. The skin attaches to perforated anchors, much like the epidermis attaches to connective tissue. (Photo courtesy of Takeuchi et al via Courthouse News)

“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,” said Takeuchi. “By mimicking human skin-ligament structures and by using specially made V-shaped perforations in solid materials, we found a way to bind skin to complex structures. 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.”

The somewhat disturbing looking robot faces may soon have a range of practical uses, beyond just giving people nightmares. For example, robot faces could be used to train plastic surgeons, and for research into skin aging and cosmetics.

"In this study, we managed to replicate human appearance to some extent by creating a face with the same surface material and structure as humans,” Takeuchi said in a statement. "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. Of course, movement is also a crucial factor, not just the material, so another important challenge is creating humanlike expressions by integrating sophisticated actuators, or muscles, inside the robot."

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