However, human-like skin has some drawbacks, as it is possible that robotic acne will one day become a thing. Image Credit: Shoji Takeuchi,
“Our goal is to develop robots that are truly human-like,” Shoji Takeuchi told IFLScience, who recently created a robotic finger with living skin made from human cells. A project professor specializing in biohybrid systems at the University of Tokyo, Takeuchi and colleagues’ finger can bend and curl without breaking, and when given a boo-boo, it can simply heal and reseal itself.
“The silicone rubber covers that are widely used [in robotics] today it may seem real from a distance or in photos or videos, but when you get really close you realize it’s artificial,” Takeuchi said. “We think the only way to get an appearance that for a human can be mistaken is to cover it with the same material as a human being, namely living cells.”
The living skin, published in the journal Matter, was created by dipping the robotic finger into a solution containing collagen and human dermal fibroblasts, the two main connecting ingredients in our flesh-colored organ coverings. As they combined around the robotic appendage, the collagen and fibroblasts began to tighten, creating a fit that Takeuchi says is the success of the hyper-realistic finger.
Once the collagen-fibroblast base was established, it became a platform for human epidermal keratinocytes to adhere to, creating a top layer that represents 90 percent of the outer layer of human skin. This adds a more lifelike texture to the robot-human mix, even if it looks “a little ‘sweaty’ straight from the culture medium,” Takeuchi said in a statement.
The wet appendage comes together to create a finger that looks very lifelike in real life. That is, if you can ignore the mechanical hum that comes from within.
Keratinocytes also waterproof human skin, and they have the same effect on the robotic finger, meaning it can repel water, which is crucial for good looks and function. Perhaps most impressive of all, while living skin is strong enough to bend, curl and be plucked by tweezers, it can also heal itself if damaged.
To do this, the researchers placed a piece of collagen on the wound of the robotic finger and let it sit for seven days. During this time, the skin cells can migrate to the collagen patch and integrate it into the skin tissue, effectively sealing the injury.
But as anyone who has experienced teenage acne will be well aware, living skin has its drawbacks for humans. Is it possible that these robots could someday be similarly vulnerable to pathogens or infections?
“The more humane the skin, the more likely it is to be the same,” Takeuchi told IFLScience. “But it may be possible to make highly resistant tissue by modifying cells.”
It may be too early to launch your biohybrid blemish skincare range, but it looks like more complex living skin (and the ability to feel pain) could well be on the cards for robots.
“One of the challenges is that there is no circulatory system built into the skin, so the skin cannot last long after being removed from the culture medium,” Takeuchi concluded.
“We are devising strategies to build up circulation in the skin. Another challenge is to develop a more refined skin with skin-specific functions by reproducing different organs in the skin, such as sensory neurons, hair follicles, nails and sweat glands. a challenging next step to scale up our current method to larger structures.”