Robots Have Chubby Faces (and Smiles), According to New Research

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In Japan, engineers are working to create robots that can mimic human expressions, particularly smiles.

They developed a face mask using human skin cells, which they attached to robots using a new technique that hides the bond and is flexible enough to form expressions such as a grimace or a slight smile.

The look is a mix between the disturbing Hannibal Lecter mask and the claymation character Gumby.

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

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

“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 study’s lead researcher, in an email interview.

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

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

A subset of these robots include so-called humanoids, designed with two arms and two legs to work in human-centered environments, such as factories, but also in the hospitality, healthcare, and education sectors.

Carsten Heer, a spokesman for the federation, said humanoids were “an exciting area of ​​development,” but mass adoption could be complicated and limited by costs.

In October 2023, the Chinese government announced a goal of mass-producing humanoids by 2025, anticipating a significant increase in industrial productivity.

For years, robotics engineers have studied materials that can protect a robot’s complex mechanisms, while being soft and lightweight enough for a variety of uses.

If a robot’s surface gets dented or scratched, it can cause it to malfunction, 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 a groundbreaking contribution to the challenge of attaching artificial skin to the underlying material,” said Professor Lynch, adding that “living skin may help us achieve the goal of self-repairing skin in biohybrid robots.”

He also noted that the study does not explain how the robots’ skin can heal itself without outside help.

For these robots, the materials challenge is also about achieving realism: finding ways to give the machine characteristics that make it more human in appearance and behavior, 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 to attach the skin with mini-hooks, but these caused tears during movement. They decided to mimic ligaments, the small strings of tissue that connect bones.

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

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

This skin addition also gives biohybrid robots the ability to perceive, bringing science closer to science fiction.

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

Currently, the artificial-skinned robots in Professor Takeuchi’s lab are unable to sense touch, temperature changes, or other external stimuli.

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

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

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

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