Bionic Skin for a Cyborg You

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One decade ago, my research group at the University of Tokyo created a flexible electronic mesh and wrapped it around the mechanical bones of a robotic hand. We had dreamed of making an electronic skin, embedded with temperature and pressure sensors, that could be worn by a robot. If a robotic health aide shook hands with a human patient, we thought, this sensor-clad e-skin would be able to measure some of the person’s vital signs at the same time.

Today we’re still working intensively on e-skin, but our focus is now on applying it directly to the human body. Such a bionic skin could be used to monitor medical conditions or to provide more sensitive and lifelike prosthetics.

But whether we’re building e-skin for robots or people, the underlying technological challenges are the same. Today’s rigid electronics aren’t a good fit with soft human bodies. Creating an electronic skin that can curve around an elbow or a knee requires a thin material that can flex and even stretch without destroying its conductive properties. We need to be able to create large sheets of this stuff and embed it with enough sensors to mimic, at least roughly, the sensitivity of human skin, and we need to do it economically. That’s a tall order, and we’re not there yet. But ultimately, I think engineers will succeed in making e-skins that give people some amazing new abilities.

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“Bionic Skin for a Cyborg You”