Because robots that act eerily human aren’t creepy enough, artificial skin that can (sort of) feel now exists.
AISkin (Artificial Ionic Skin) is a hydrogel sensor that looks like the Blob’s sleeker cousin. Recently developed by a team of researchers from the University of Toronto’s engineering department, the adhesive skin is autonomous and records sensations that are literally skin-deep. The freakiest thing about it is that it can “think” without being plugged into anything.
“[AISkin has] high toughness, stretchability, ambient stability and transparency,” said Xinyu Liu and colleagues in a study recently published in Materials Horizons. Liu is a U Toronto professor who runs a high-tech lab that develops almost unreal technologies like soft robotics.
This type of AI is artificially intelligent in a different way than the computer brains you might normally think of. Hydrogels are just weird in themselves. These 3D networks of hydrophilic polymers can hold massive amounts of water without their chemical structure breaking. AISkin can stretch up to 400% of its length, 350% more than the human epidermis (except maybe in the cinematic nightmare Brazil, above). Think of it as expando-skin made out of polymers.
Polymers make up a staggering amount of substances, from gemstones to tires. Their many small molecules, or monomers, are linked together by (at least in this case) ionic bonds. This type of chemical bond involves the transfer of electrons from one atom to another, as opposed to a covalent bond, in which atoms of equal electronegativity share a bonding pair of electrons. An ionic bond means the atom with higher electronegativity body-snatches by stealing and controlling the other's electrons.
Ionic bonds are the force powering this futuristic skin. It is actually a double layer of hydrogels, one positively charged and one negatively charged. The magic happens when an overlay of negative and positive ions creates a reaction on the surface. The researchers call this a “sensing junction,” which acts like skin by protecting the body from moisture and the elements while mirroring the sensory receptors that can “perceive environmental and mechanical stimuli” like heat and pressure, according to Liu and colleagues. They added that AISkin is capable of “wearable strain-humidity sensing, human–machine interaction and walking energy harvesting.”
The chemistry of AISkin merges with biological capabilities when stimuli like a spike in temperature or strain from a killer workout set off ion movements across that sensing junction. The activity of these ions translates to electrical signals, so it can be measured like voltage. If this sounds alien, you might be shocked to find out that your skin senses the same types of stimuli when neural cells zap information through—you guessed it—ions.
Just some of the new frontiers AISkin could break into are soft robotics, medical applications, fitness monitors like FitBit, even video games. Seriously. Robots made completely out of polymers could be assembling things or serving up hot dogs or pizza someday. Plus, imagine playing a game just by running your finger across a sticky pad on your hand.
“This work will open new avenues toward next-generation, skin-inspired wearable electronics,” said Liu, who is working to upgrade it with the ability to measure biomolecules found in sweat and other bodily fluids.
Creepy, but awesome.