Robots get a plump face (and a smile) according to new research

Robots get a plump face (and a smile) according to new research
Related media – Associated media

Engineers in Japan are working to make robots capable of mimicking human expressions, particularly the smile.

They have developed a face mask using human skin cells, which they attach to robots with a new technique that conceals the bond and is flexible enough to form expressions like a grimace or a soft smile.

The appearance is a mix between the eerie Hannibal Lecter mask and the claymation character Gumby.

However, scientists believe these prototypes could lead to more advanced robots. These robots would have an outer layer that is elastic and durable, protecting the machine while making it appear more human-like.

The “skin equivalent,” as researchers call it, is made in the lab from living skin cells. According to a study published on June 25 in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science, this skin can scar, burn, and even heal itself.

“Human-like faces and expressions enhance communication and empathy in human-robot interactions, making robots more effective in roles such as healthcare, service, and companionship,” said Shoji Takeuchi, a professor at the University of Tokyo and the lead investigator of the study, in an email interview.

This research comes at a time when robots are becoming more common in factories.

The International Federation of Robotics reported that by 2022, there were 3.9 million industrial robots working in automotive and electronics assembly lines, among other environments.

A subset of these robots includes so-called humanoids, which are designed with two arms and two legs to work in human-centric environments like factories, as well as in hospitality, healthcare, and education.

Carsten Heer, a spokesman for the federation, stated that humanoids represent “an exciting area of development,” but mass-market adoption could be complicated and limited by costs.

In October 2023, the Chinese government announced a goal to mass-produce humanoids by 2025, predicting a significant boost in industrial productivity.

For years, robotics engineers have been exploring materials that can protect a robot’s complex machinery while being soft and lightweight enough for various uses.

If a robot’s surface gets dented or scratched, it can lead to malfunctions, making self-repair an essential feature for humanoid robots, the researchers noted.

The new skin attachment method advances the emerging field of “biohybrid” robotics, which combines mechanical engineering with genetic and tissue engineering, said Kevin Lynch, director of the Center for Robotics and Biosystems at Northwestern University.

“This study is an innovative contribution to the challenge of attaching artificial skin to the underlying material,” Professor Lynch said, adding that “living skin may help us achieve the goal of self-healing skins in biohybrid robots.”

He also noted that the study does not explain how robot skin can heal itself without external help.

For these robots, the challenge of materials also includes achieving realism: finding ways to give the machine features that make it look and act more human, such as the ability to smile.

Scientists, including Professor Takeuchi and his team at the University of Tokyo, have been working with lab-grown human skin for years.

In 2022, the research team created a robotic finger covered in living skin, allowing it to bend like a human finger and potentially perform more precise tasks.

Professor Takeuchi’s team had previously tried securing the skin with mini-hooks, but these caused tears during movement. They then decided to mimic ligaments, the tiny strings of tissue that connect bones.

They drilled small V-shaped holes into the robot and applied a collagen-containing gel, which filled the holes and attached the artificial skin to the machine.

“This approach integrates traditional rigid robots with soft, biological skins, making them more human-like,” said Yifan Wang, an assistant professor in the school of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who studies “soft robots” that mimic biological creatures.

This skin attachment also gives biohybrid robots the potential to sense, bringing science closer to sci-fi fantasy.

“This could enable robots to safely perceive and interact with humans,” Professor Wang said.

Currently, the artificially skinned robots in Professor Takeuchi’s lab cannot sense touch, temperature changes, or other external stimuli.

Professor Takeuchi said this will be the focus of his next research phase.

“Our goal is to create skin that closely mimics the functionality of real skin, gradually adding essential components like blood vessels, nerves, sweat glands, sebaceous glands, and hair follicles,” he said.

Instead of neural systems transmitting sensations in the human body, a robot’s electronics would need to process sensor signals, a development that Professor Wang said would require much more time and research.

Connected media – Associated media

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