Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation
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Credit: Paramount Television

Science Behind the Fiction: Are we getting closer to TNG's Data and his artificial skin?

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Jul 24, 2019

Humankind has been trying to recreate aspects of the human body for millennia — like this artificial toe, made of wood, found with the body of an ancient Egyptian — but technology just can't compete with what nature so readily gives. Morden prosthetics are capable of receiving input from the user and function much more like the body parts they are meant to replicate. But that feedback is, for the most part, one way. People are able to send information to the device, but the device isn't very good at sending information back. Robots, an attempt to recreate aspects of the human body from scratch, face the same issue. They can accomplish specific jobs, sure, but they have trouble truly responding to the world around them.

This problem, the inability to quantify and replicate the complexities of human sensory information, was one explored at large in Star Trek: The Next Generation, with the character Data. He desired, above all else, to become more human. And, while he was an incredibly impressive facsimile of a human, he lacked the ability to feel (at least until he was fitted with skin during the events of First Contact). Despite the many advances in robotics, this goes to show that replicating the intricacies of the human body was a problem, even in the twenty-fourth century.

Developing a sense of touch, both in prostheses and robotics, has long been a goal of scientists. Such an accomplishment would fundamentally change the way artificial bodies, and body parts, can be used. Recent advancements in electronic skin might mean we can solve the problem far in advance of Roddenberry's predicted timeline.

Sensory Processing

When we think of organs, our minds automatically go internal, but the largest and most readily visible organ of the human body is the skin. It does so much for us, regulating body temperature and delivering sensory information from the world around us, but we often take it for granted. Without the information provided by your skin, you likely wouldn't survive long. This complex network of sensors not only protects you from the outside world, it also gives you the information needed for balance and alerts you to external dangers.

While we've had some success in developing artificial versions of internal organs, a good replica of skin has eluded our grasp — until now.

A team of researchers at the National University of Singapore have developed an artificial nervous system made of a series of sensors and an electrical conductor that they've dubbed ACES (Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin), and it promises to deliver sensory input 1,000 times faster than the human body.

The team, led by Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at NUS, reported their work in the journal Science Robotics earlier this month.

One of the primary improvements achieved by Professor Tee and his team is ensuring that each sensor functions independently of any others. Think of the way some Christmas lights operate — when one light goes out, the entire string isn't compromised, Tee's system allows for damage to one part of the system while maintaining the integrity of the whole. This allows for the skin to suffer damage and continue to operate.

Moreover, ACES is capable of identifying shape, texture, and hardness of objects it interacts with within ten milliseconds.

"ACES can be easily paired with any kind of sensor skin layers, for example, those designed to sense temperatures and humidity, to create high-performance ACES-enabled electronic skin with an exceptional sense of touch that can be used for a wide range of purposes," Tee told Science Daily.

This breakthrough provides an incredible improvement in the software needed for electronic skin to sense and process the surrounding environment and send data back to the system, either artificial or human. All that's needed is a pairing with a suitable e-skin.

Functional E-skin

Enter researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder. Jianliang Xiao, assistant professor at CU Boulder's Department of Mechanical Engineering is leading the charge. Xiao and associates have developed an e-skin with sensors capable of measuring pressure, temperature, humidity, and airflow.

Not only is the skin capable of sensing and processing external information, it's also self-healing and totally recyclable.

Taking inspiration from the self-healing capability of human skin, Assistant Professor Xiao wanted to develop something with comparable capabilities.

The e-skin is comprised of polymers which, when damaged, can repair themselves. When damaged, new polymers grow across the broken surface, repairing the damage and result in functionality measurably comparable to the original. Additionally, if the skin is damaged beyond the point of repair, it can be broken down and recycled into a new e-skin and replaced.

Combining this technology with the aforementioned system developed out of Singapore, we're looking at the possibility of electronic skin capable of every important aspect of natural skin.

These developments make real the possibility of developing prostheses and robots capable of sensing the world around us in a way very similar to human skin, and perhaps, even better.

As these technologies improve, we're looking at a world wherein those individuals using artificial limbs fully recover the functionality of their biological counterparts and robots might experience the world in the same way we do.

That way, when the Borg endeavor to take over humanity, our androids won't be tempted by their offers, not even for 0.68 seconds.

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