Rachel Fieldhouse


New “sweaty” living skin for robots might make your skin crawl

New “sweaty” living skin for robots might make your skin crawl

A team of Japanese scientists have crafted the first living skin for robots that not only resembles our skin in texture, but it also repels water and has self-healing functions just like ours.

To craft the skin, the team submerged a robotic finger into a cylinder filled with collagen and human dermal fibroblasts - the two main components that make up our skin’s connective tissues. The way that this mixture shrank and conformed to the finger that gave it such a realistic appearance - making for a large leap forward in terms of creating human-like appearances for robots.

“The finger looks slightly ‘sweaty’ straight out of the culture medium,” says Shoji Takeuchi, a professor at the University of Tokyo and the study’s first author. “Since the finger is driven by an electric motor, it is also interesting to hear the clicking sounds of the motor in harmony with a finger that looks just like a real one.”

The team submerged the robotic finger into a mixture of collagen and human dermal fibroblasts to create the new skin. Image: Shoji Takeuchi

Realism is a top priority for humanoid robots tasked with interacting with people in healthcare and the service industry, since looking human can improve communication efficiency and even make us like the robot more.

Current methods of creating skin for robots use silicone, which effectively mimic human appearance but fall short in creating delicate textures, such as wrinkles, and in having skin-specific functions.

Meanwhile, trying to tailor sheets of living skin - commonly used in skin grafting - is difficult when it comes to conforming to fingers, which have uneven surfaces and need to be able to move.

“With that method, you have to have the hands of a skilled artisan who can cut and tailor the skin sheets,” Takeuchi says. “To efficiently cover surfaces with skin cells, we established a tissue moulding method to directly mould skin tissue around the robot, which resulted in a seamless skin coverage on a robotic finger.”

Other experts have also noted that this level of realism could have the opposite effect, in a phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley” effect.

“It is possible that the human-like appearance [of some robots] induces certain expectations but when they do not meet those expectations, they are found eerie or creepy,” Dr Burcu Ürgen, an assistant professor in psychology at Bilkent University, Turkey, who wasn’t involved in the study, told The Guardian

Professor Fabian Grabenhorst, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford who studies the uncanny-valley effect, also told the publication that people might have an initial negative reaction to these kinds of robots, but that it could shift depending on their interactions with the robot.

“Initially people might find it weird, but through positive experiences that might help people overcome those feelings,” he told The Guardian.

“It seems like a fantastic technological innovation.”

As exciting as this discovery is, Takeuchi adds that it’s “just the first step” in covering robots in living skin, with their future work looking to allow the skin to survive without constant nutrient supply and waste removal, as well as including hair follicles, nails, sweat glands and sensory neurons.

“I think living skin is the ultimate solution to give robots the look and touch of living creatures since it is exactly the same material that covers animal bodies,” he says.

Their study was published in the journal Matter.

Image: Shoji Takeuchi

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