Japanese scientists who have presumably never seen any Terminator movies have discovered a way to wrap living skin around a robotic finger to make it feel worryingly real and “slightly sweaty,” bringing humanity one step closer to human-like robots that will not wipe us all out.
The team from the University of Tokyo published a paper on the project in the journal Matter. It describes how a robotic finger was first immersed in a cylinder filled with a solution of collagen and human dermal fibroblasts, which are found in the connective tissue of the skin. This creates a layer for human epidermal keratinocytes to adhere to—a primary epidermal cell type that also produces keratin, which binds skin cells together and makes the epidermis a waterproof barrier.
In addition to resembling a human finger in appearance and feel, the scientists discovered that the skin could heal itself after being cut, though it did require the assistance of a band-aid-like sheet of collagen.
“The finger looks slightly sweaty straight out of the culture medium,” said Shoji Takeuchi, a professor at the University of Tokyo. “Because the finger is powered by an electric motor, it’s also interesting to hear the motor’s clicking sounds in sync with a finger that looks exactly like a real one.”
There is still work to be done before the skin can be precisely replicated. It is not as strong as human skin, and because it lacks a circulatory system that provides water and nutrients, it must be kept moist. The team hopes to address this by incorporating channels beneath the dermis that function similarly to blood vessels. Future additions to the realism include artificial sweat glands, sensory neurons, hair follicles, and nails.
You may be wondering why we are developing such human-like robots, which cause the uncanny valley effect and fears of machine uprisings. “I think living skin is the ultimate solution to give robots the look and feel of living creatures because it is exactly the same material that covers animal bodies,” Takeuchi says. He claims that this will aid in “creating a new relationship between humans and robots.”
The researchers are also developing a skin-covered robot face that, hopefully, will not speak in a thick Austrian accent.