Robots are becoming more human (and vice versa)

The few robots that currently affect our lives in any way don’t look like humans. We have robot deliverymen, robot surgeons and robot cars – but none of those is even a little bit humanoid.

That makes perfect sense. Humans are floppy, flabby all-rounders, capable of doing lots of things to varying levels. Most robots are built to perform only a small number of tasks, but to a very high degree of accuracy. They’re purpose-built in a way humans aren’t. As of now, there’s no reason for robots like that to resemble humans at all.

That hasn’t stopped a team at Tokyo’s Suzumori Endo Robotics Laboratory. Using a revolutionary movement system designed to ape human muscles, the team has created the world’s most life-like walking robot.

The team started with an artificial human skeleton, then covered it in bundles of multifilament artificial muscles. These muscles work in exactly the same way as human muscles, expanding and contracting when electrical current is passed through them. Different muscles can be zapped to move the robot’s limbs or head almost exactly as a human does.

The technology’s not perfect yet. The multifilament bundles can’t respond quite as quickly as human muscles, which makes movement slightly clunky, and walking unassisted impossible. No doubt the technology will improve apace.

Robots are becoming more human (and vice versa)

Just as Japanese scientists work to make robots walk like humans, academics closer to home are working to narrow the man-machine gap from the other side. Thanks to the efforts of a team at the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine of the University of Bristol, it is now possible to 3D-print live tissue.

Dr Adam Perriman’s group has developed a new type of bio-ink that could enable the production of complex human tissues for use in surgical implants. The bio-ink contains two polymers that form the structural basis of the compound.

One of these substances – a synthetic polymer used in the medical industry – alters the state of the bio-ink from liquid to solid when the ink’s temperature rises to exactly 37 degrees centigrade. The other polymer – a natural substance extracted from seaweed – allows the substance to keep a rigid structure. Stem cells are then added to this framework, and make up the actual essence of the tissues being printed.

Previous bio-inks have failed because their make-up didn’t allow nutrients to get to the solution’s stem cells undamaged. Through a gruelling process of trial and error, Perriman’s team managed to find a combination of polymers that allowed the tissue to maintain structural integrity without hindering the active cells.

“What was really astonishing”, said Perriman, “was when the cell nutrients were introduced, the synthetic polymer was completely expelled from the 3D structure, leaving only the stem cells and the natural seaweed polymer.”

“This, in turn, created microscopic pores in the structure, which provided more effective nutrient access for the stem cells.”

Perriman’s team used its technique to 3D-print an entire nose, but is also capable of making ears, tracheas and other large, viable human structures. What’s more, the structures appear to be self-purging. After ten days, each body part stood totally stable, devoid of any synthetic polymer.

If the process can be proven to work at scale, it could very well constitute the future of surgery. Bio-ink could be used to form bone and cartilage from patients’ own stem cells. Entirely organic, re-grown hip joints, or knee cartilage, would be among the structures available to build.

Too little too late?

Perriman’s discovery is astonishing. Re-constructing human bodies with a gel printer doesn’t sound like it should be possible. But we’re getting to that stage, and quickly.

Paired with the robotics discover mentioned at the top of this email, Perriman’s discovery raises interesting questions about what our bodies will actually look like in the near future. Will bio-engineering change the way we look (and feel)? Or will advances in robotics make weak flesh irrelevant?

Will either of these improving processes be necessary if we’re all born perfect, with bespoke genomes?

It’s hard to know. But what’s certain is that humans are likely to become tougher, taller, stronger, better and more intelligent through a combination of these and similar technological advances. Once the ethical barrier is broken – and that won’t take long, considering the potential upside of these innovations – we’ll see an absolute gold rush as scientists from different disciplines compete and collaborate to perfect humankind.

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Category: Robotics

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