Imagine meeting a robot one day. A friendly robot. It whirs and beeps and blinks a bit, and then sticks out a robotic hand. “Hello, human. It is a pleasure to meet you.” Very cool.
And then. “Ouch!” That’s you, as your new robotic friend gives you a vice-like, mechanical squeeze/hand shake. Not so cool.
Now though, there may be a fix for that: e-skin.
The latest version of e- (for “electronic”) skin, is being developed at the University of Colorado, Boulder. It’s made of very thin, very supple, polymer called polyimine – reinforced with silver nanoparticles for strength – with sensors for pressure, humidity, temperature (so the “skin” knows what it is doing).
And while shaking hands with a robot would be cool, there is much more this skin could do. It could, for example, allow robots to perform a wide range of delicate tasks, even perhaps, checking a child’s forehead for fever (because it could sense the heat if there was a temperature, and could touch gently so the child would be safe). The same skin could be used on a prosthetic limb, to give a human user all the same benefits of a finer touch.
E-skin won’t feel like our skin – but to a remarkable degree, e-skin will be able to function like our skin – sending the same messages to an e-brain or our brain: this is hot, this is cold, hold this tighter, hold this gently.
This latest e-skin even has the ability to heal itself (with a little chemical help), so if it does get a cut, you won’t have to worry about your robot rummaging around under the sink for a bandage.
Since it is an artificial skin, it can also be recycled – which might sound a little weird, but makes this more environmentally-friendly, and less expensive to produce.
And, do we need to mention it? The polymer (the cool word for “plastic”) is made possible by the petrochemical para-xylene. (which in turn is made from oil).
So someday soon, if you run into C3PO on the street, you’ll be able to high five him. Safely.