Home Science and technology Robots with Living ‘Skin’ Now Capable of Smiling and Other Eerie Expressions

Robots with Living ‘Skin’ Now Capable of Smiling and Other Eerie Expressions

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Humanoid robots are already quite unsettling, but what if they had skin that made them look even more like the species they’re designed to imitate?

Scientists at the University of Tokyo have developed a new, rather unnerving technology using engineered living skin tissue and human-like ligaments. This can now be bonded to the surface of robots, enabling them to exhibit more human-like facial expressions, including smiles and frowns.

This so-called “skin equivalent” adhesion method, still in its prototype phase, is sure to disturb. A GIF shared online alongside the study depicts a small, pink, 2D face with glassy eyes pulled into a smile, reminiscent of the eerie Claymation cartoons from the 1960s and ’70s.

“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,” professor Shoji Takeuchi, the team leader, explained in a news release new (and slightly nightmare-inducing) technology.

A paper, published in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science, was released last week elaborating on the technology could be used in future robotics efforts, with a goal to “endow robots with the seal-healing capabilities inherent in biological skin.”

While Takeuchi had previously created “living” robot skin using collagen and human dermal fibroblasts, which are found in human skin and connective tissue, these latest designs are distinguished by their method of attachment to a robotic structure.

Before, explains Takeuchi, scientists lacked a reliable method for attaching the engineered skin to robots, causing it to stretch out, sag, or become misshapen.

Now, a more effective adhesion method has been developed, where the skin layer binds to an innovative system of tiny V-shaped perforations on the robot’s surface. This allows the skin to manipulate without sagging, peeling, or tearing.

As well, he added, “we identified new challenges, such as the necessity for surface wrinkles and a thicker epidermis to achieve a more human like appearance.”

In addition to the pink, smiling face attached to a sliding machine, Takeuchi’s team also created a robotic head and moulded the engineered skin over its entire surface.

“Realistic facial expressions enhance the robot’s ability to communicate and interact with humans more naturally and effectively,” Takeuchi told CNN, highlighting that humanoid robots will become increasingly prevalent in roles involving human interaction. “This is particularly important in applications such as healthcare, where empathy and emotional connection can significantly impact patient care.”

Beyond mimicking human facial expressions, the “skin equivalent” can also scar, burn, and self-heal — a “big deal,” says Takeuchi.

“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,” he said. “Biological skin repairs minor lacerations as ours does, and nerves and other skin organs can be added for use in sensing and so on.”

“In unpredictable environments, minor scratches and damages that robot skin inevitably incurs can escalate into serious impairments if left unattended,” the scientists explain in the paper. “Therefore, the capacity for self-repair becomes a critical feature for humanoid robots.”

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