Robots could soon don human-like synthetic skin akin to the cyborg assassins in the movie “Terminator,” after Stanford University researchers developed an ultra-realistic, self-healing material.
Researchers have been researching and developing convincing skin materials for robots for years, and as far back as 2012, Stanford professor Zhenan Bao unveiled the first multilayer self-healing synthetic electronic skin.
More than a decade later, Bao and other researchers have pushed their research even further into the future: synthetic skin layers can now self-recognize and align with each other when injured, allowing the skin to continue functioning while it heals.
“We have achieved what we believe to be the first demonstration of a multilayer thin-film sensor that automatically rearranges itself during the healing process,” Christopher B. Cooper, a Stanford Ph.D. student and co-author of the study, told SWNS .
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“This is a crucial step toward mimicking human skin, which has multiple layers that can all be properly reassembled during the healing process.”
According to SWNS, equipping AI-powered robots with lifelike skin could be the way of the future, making humans feel more comfortable with the technology. The material is similar to actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg character in “Terminator,” which has a robotic endoskeleton covered in “living tissue.”
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Similar to human skin, the materials produced by the Stanford researchers can sense thermal, mechanical or electrical changes in their surroundings. The current prototype in the study was designed to sense stress.
“It’s soft and stretchable. But if you puncture it, slice it or cut it, each layer will selectively heal itself to restore overall function. Just like real skin,” said co-author Sam Root.
“One layer might feel pressure, another temperature, another tension,” Root added.
Researchers have developed silicone and polypropylene glycol materials that can stretch like human skin without tearing, while magnetic properties allow the skin to self-align.
When the material is heated, it softens before returning to its normal state. If the material is damaged, it can repair itself in as little as 24 hours when heated to 158°F, whereas the same repair process would take about a week at room temperature.
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“Combining magnetic field-guided navigation and induction heating, we may be able to build reconfigurable soft robots that can change shape on demand and sense their deformation,” said co-author Renee Zhao.
The researchers say their next steps are to make the skin layers as thin as possible for different functions, such as one that senses temperature changes and another that senses pressure.
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The research comes at a time when artificial intelligence is on the rise, including millions of people flocking to use the chatbot ChatGPT and create lifelike images generated by artificial intelligence.
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In the technological race to build more powerful AI systems, humanoid robots have also found themselves in the spotlight. A Texas-based company is working on “universal robots” that will assist with household chores, while a robotics startup backed by OpenAI is working to commercialize humanoid robots for the workplace.