As fans of the movie series know, the Terminator or T-800 is human-like cybernetic organism consisting of living tissue on a robotic endoskeleton. It’s not real … yet. Two biomedical researchers have proposed that the future of creating viable replacement skin and muscles for humans involves growing them on humanoid robots that train the tissue to work properly before being grafted to a person. The underlying robots are ready. The skin is ready. How long will it be before a real Terminator is ready?
According to their report in Science Robotics, the goal of Pierre-Alexis Mouthuy and Andrew Carr, University of Oxford biomedical researchers, is not to create a killing machine but to create a killer way grow better human tissue in a lab. Currently, tissue used in making skin grafts or muscle tissue for burn victims or other surgical needs is grown in bioreactor vats filled with liquid nutrients to feed sheets of cells stretched across a support frame. While it works OK for skin, it’s a poor way to develop muscles and tendons. The end result would be much better if the sheets were grown on a human frame that moved and stretched them into the shape and structure of real tissue, perhaps even in the same body location where it would eventually end up.
If only there was a human-shaped bioreactor. Given the chance to design one, Mouthuy and Carr say their "humanoid-bioreactor system" would be a robotic skeleton that could wear and grow skin tissue on its outer surface and tendons at mechanical joints. The structure would be covered with electroactive polymers with sensors to monitor the tissues. The fat and other non-skin body components would be fluid-filled bags.
Most of that design is already doable. Engineers at the University of Tokyo have developed the Kenshiro humanoid robot which has a human-like musculoskeletal structure with artificial muscles and 160 pulley-like "muscles" that is said to have the most human-like form and motion in the robotics world. Mouthuy and Carr are working on prototypes of an artificial skin membrane that would hold the tissue to the robotic skeleton and body until it was ready for grafting.
Add a little imagination and these humanoid bioreactors could also grow organ tissue – perhaps even hearts - in the same manner deep inside the robot’s skeleton. Throw in some cells that mimic the mechanical muscles and you’re on the way to developing "biohybrid humanoids."
While the pieces are there, the authors don’t give any indication when they’ll all be put together to make a Terminator for organ-growing labs. Nor do they say anything about what might happen if one of these robots escape like robots seem to be doing lately.
Could a biohybrid humanoid bolt the lab, steal a shotgun, harvest organs from humans, attach them to itself to keep them alive and then auction them off to the highest bidder? Sounds like a good movie plot … for now.