A memorable scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the one where Dr. Miles Dyson, a cybernetics expert, the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 (T-800) played by Arnold Schwarzenegger cuts into his arm and removes its skin to show its mechanical insides and convince Dyson it is indeed a Terminator. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was released in 1991 and the movie partly takes place in 2029 – the year the T-800 and T-1000 are sent from. It is now 2022. While we’re a long way from making Terminators (hopefully), tissue engineers at the University of Tokyo have successfully covered a three-jointed, functioning robot finger with lab-grown human skin. Is it too early to call Sarah Connor?
“These findings show the potential of a paradigm shift from traditional robotics to the new scheme of biohybrid robotics that leverage the advantages of both living materials and artificial materials.”
In a new study, published in the journal Matter, Tokyo University researchers explain what most people already knew – humans prefer robots that look like them. While firms like Boston Dynamics have successfully created robots that move like living dogs and humans, they still look like mechanical machines. That’s because the most difficult organ of the human body to replicate is the skin – the feeling, flexible covering that keeps everything inside protected while moving seamlessly with the mechanical parts and healing itself after injuries. It’s the holy grail with nails and the researchers decided that it was time to adopt a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach by ditching the quest for artificial human skin and instead growing the real deal in a way that can be used as a robot package.
“The finger looks slightly ‘sweaty’ straight out of the culture medium. 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.”
Study co-author Professor Shoji Takeuchi admits what the team created is only a finger … but what a finger it is. To achieve the bond between living cells and robotic metal, the team submerged their well-designed robotic finger in a cylinder filled with a solution of collagen and human dermal fibroblasts, the two main components of the skin’s underlying connective tissues. That was the secret to fitting the skin seamlessly to the finger – the mixture shrank and tightly bonded to the finger bot. This formed the base foundation for the top coating of human epidermal keratinocytes, which make up 90% of the outermost layer of skin and give it its self-healing properties. The end result was a robotic finger with the texture, moisture-retaining properties and protection of human skin.
How realistic was it? (Watch the video.) According to the press release, the lab grown skin stretched and bent but did not break as it matched the movement of its robotic exoskeleton. For a creepy factor, the skin could be lifted and stretched with a pair of tweezers, then snapped back and repelled water. (Photos here.) And then came the Terminator effect.
“When wounded, the crafted skin could even self-heal like humans’ with the help of a collagen bandage, which gradually morphed into the skin and withstood repeated joint movements.”
So, we ask again … IS it time to call Sarah Connor? Not quite … but keep her number handy. Takeuchi admits that, while impressive, the lab grown robotic skin is much weaker than its homegrown counterpart. It also requires assistance to feed it nutrients and remove waste. Finally, it needs fingernails, hair follicles and sweat glands – not just for their cosmetic value, although that’s important for humans to accept humanoid robots, but to replace the artificial feeding, circulation and protection the scientists still had to provide for the skin.
“I feel like I'm gonna throw up.”
“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.”
Does the thought of human skin covering a robot make you feel like Dr. Mike Dyson in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day“ (the first quote) or Dr. Shoji Takeuchi in his lab at the University of Tokyo?
Either way, the future is no longer in OUR hands.