The real-life process may not be as scary as The Terminator's T-1000 or as elegant as the delicate, 3D-printed web-weaving fiction in the opening credits of Westworld, but the idea underlying a recent development in the upstart field of “biohybrid robotics” is pretty much the same: Find a better way to build a robot that can move like a person.
Via ScienceDaily, researchers at the Institute of Industrial Science in Tokyo have devised a new method for creating lab-made organic skeletal muscle from scratch. In the same breakthrough, they’ve also come up with a new way for the organic fibers to function, at a cellular level, in similar fashion to the way they operate in living organisms: by firing off in “antagonistic pairs” that allows some muscle fibers to contract while an equal number of other ones expand.
That’s just half the story, though. Once new muscle tissue has been “grown” via an innovative process that “progresses from individual muscle precursor cells, to muscle-cell-filled sheets, and then to fully functioning skeletal muscle tissues,” the finished muscle fibers can be attached to a purpose-made robotic skeleton — a skeleton that those muscles can actually move.
To test the muscles’ ability to animate whatever they’re attached to, the team designed a robotic rotating joint with strategically placed anchor points where the living muscle tissue was affixed. Then they embedded electrodes that allow the muscles to respond to electrical impulses — just as they do in the body.
In a series of trials, researchers were able to instruct their cybernetic creations to “pick up and place a ring, and having two robots work in unison to pick up a square frame,” the report states. “The results showed that the robots could perform these tasks well, with activation of the muscles leading to flexing of a finger-like protuberance at the end of the robot by around 90 degrees.”
The new antagonistic pairing method has enabled musclebound robots, for the first time, to consistently and repeatedly “mimic the actions of a human finger” without an immediate shrinkage and deterioration of the muscle tissue, according to lead author Yuya Morimoto.
“If we can combine more of these muscles into a single device, we should be able to reproduce the complex muscular interplay that allow hands, arms, and other parts of the body to function,” he added.
Yikes. Scientists may still have a way to go before figuring out how to add true sentience into the mix, but they’ve already demonstrated that fusing human tissue with cold metal — and then instructing it to move — is beyond the proof-of-concept stage. We’re just hoping these guys are staying too busy in the lab to watch Westworld or The Terminator for ideas about where to take their research next.