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SYFY WIRE robots

Creepy robot fingers that can sweat have us drowning in anxiety

By Benjamin Bullard
Teddy and Dolores in HBO's Westworld

Do the Westworld robots perspire? If so, maybe sweat glistening like some chemical morning dew on their synthetic hands could be supplied by this creepily real device, whose very necessity we’re credulously side-eying: an actual robo-finger that knows how to let off some steam.

Obviously jumping face-first into the “could” and not the “should” end of the engineering pool, a team of robot scientists decided to take casting droids in our own anthropomorphic likeness to the next level by applying a human biological principle not just to the way robots look, but to the way they actually function. In a new study reported in the Science Robotics journal, the team related the virtues they found in developing a flexible robot hand that’s built for working up a sweat as it grips things — and for turning on the waterworks to cool down when the heat is on.

Great — now androids can have just the thing to make that freaky, skin-like phone case that another tech team's been working on slip right out of their hands. Granted, we do send robots into some pretty hostile places to do the work we people can’t (or won’t), so for real — why not ditch all those time-honored conventional ways we cool machines down and go for something a little more relatable?

Here’s a demo of one of the robot fingers in action:

Triggers your Pavlovian craving for a cold frosty beverage, doesn’t it? No? Us neither.

Joking aside, the tech at work behind this sweaty digit’s self-cooling ability is simple, but its execution is remarkably complicated. Made from two types of flexible resin, these squishy 3D-printed robot fingers are hollow on the inside, and the material allows the body of each one to shrink when the temperature rises above 40° C. Meanwhile, the back of each finger — made from the other type of resin — can expand at temperatures above 30° C. The back part is permeated by microscopic “pores” that stay shut until the thermometer creeps past 30° C, when the resin begins to expand and causes each pore to dilate. From there, simple physics does the rest. 

Fine, but why cool a machine in this way? What’s wrong with current methods, like just letting coolant circulate through a pump-powered system of pipes? And do resilient synthetic materials really need the ability to self-cool? Aren’t robots made from heat-resistant materials that more or less avert such a problem in the first place?

Researcher T.J. Wallin of Facebook Reality Labs, a co-author on the study, has the answer — and we’ve got to admit, it makes sense. “[O]ther heat transfer strategies, such as conduction, convection, and radiation, are ineffective at lowering the temperature of the body when it is below that of the environment, whereas sweating and evaporative water loss can do that,” he told IEEE Spectrum. ”In some ways it's a trade-off, but we feel it is an important benefit.”

Okay, point taken. Maybe robots do need to sweat. But so far, these android hands are only able to leak out as much water as they’re given at the starting point. When they’ve perspired their last, they still need humans to give them a refill — and this is where things get creepy again. 

“The answer is right in front of me — I'm drinking some coffee right now,” Cornell mechanical engineer Robert Shepherd, another co-author, told IEEE Spectrum. “I think in order for the robot to operate with the sweating we have created, it would also have to be able to drink.”

A drinking, sweating robot, eh? Just admit it, robot scientists: You’re all dying to develop a futuristic droid like Blade Runner’s replicants or Westworld’s hosts — the kind of synth whose looks and behavior can’t be distinguished from those of real people … maybe. We think. And even if we’re (mostly) kidding here, that’s precisely the kind of dystopian thought that puts us in a sweaty panic … and makes us want to drink.