Scientists attach living skin to robots to make them smile

Scientists have found a way to attach engineered living skin tissue to robots so they can smile and have an "increasingly lifelike appearance".

A team at Tokyo University, in Japan, said their work would also bring other potential benefits for robotic platforms, such as increased mobility - and could help train plastic surgeons and be useful in the cosmetics industry.

Although its prototype may look like something from science fiction, living cells were used to engineer the skin before scientists made special "V-shaped perforations in solid materials" to bind the skin to structures.

Team leader Professor Shoji Takeuchi has overseen previous biohybrid projects including 3D printed lab-grown meat and walking robots with biological muscle tissue.

He said: "The natural flexibility of the skin and the strong method of adhesion mean the skin can move with the mechanical components of the robot without tearing or peeling away.

"Manipulating soft, wet biological tissues during the development process is much harder than people outside the field might think. For instance, if sterility is not maintained, bacteria can enter and the tissue will die.

"However, now that we can do this, living skin can bring a range of new abilities to robots.

"Self-healing is a big deal - some chemical-based materials can be made to heal themselves, but they require triggers such as heat, pressure or other signals, and they also do not proliferate like cells.

"Biological skin repairs minor lacerations as ours does, and nerves and other skin organs can be added for use in sensing and so on."

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He added the human appearance was replicated to "some extent" - and said it was "incredibly motivating" to create robots which can "heal themselves" and possess "humanlike dexterity".

"We identified new challenges, such as the necessity for surface wrinkles and a thicker epidermis to achieve a more humanlike appearance," he said.

"We believe that creating a thicker and more realistic skin can be achieved by incorporating sweat glands, sebaceous glands, pores, blood vessels, fat and nerves."

The research was published in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science.