Do Robots Need Skin?

Japanese researchers have taken a big step toward giving robots skin. An innovative process has allowed them to coat a robotic finger with living skin. It has to be kept moist, since it naturally has no circulatory system, and it creeps people out — even in Japan, where people are often more accepting of robots than those of us in the Unites States, who have mental images of robots that include the Terminator.

This is not the only robot skin experiment out there. South Korean researchers came up with biomimetic robotic skin made of hydrogel and silicone. A group in the UK created a computational e-skin that allows haptic learning. Caltech came up with a robotic skin that can sense temperature and pressure, much as human skin can.

What’s the point?

The Japanese researchers say plainly that they think their robot skin will make robots look more like human beings. Is that a good thing? The uncanny valley is the feeling of repulsion we have when something humanoid is just a little bit too human…but still not quite human.

This feeling can be caused by dead bodies, clowns, dolls — it depends on the individual. Convincingly humanoid robots will do it for most Americans, though. We don’t really want robots to be that human looking.

Haptic learning and sensors that register vibrations, temperature, and pressure may have practical value, however. Just as robotic vision made it possible for machinery to unload pallets for us, a robotic sense of touch could allow machines to sort fruit and sew clothing.

Making robots more and more like humans may or may not be a desirable goal, but much of the progress in robotics over the past decade has been about more and better sensors. Robot skin may be the culmination of that trend.

If your Indramat motion control systems need support or service, call us at (479) 422-0390 for immediate assistance. Your robots will thank you.