Smart Electronic Skin

September’s IEEE Spectrum also feature an article on electronic, hyper-flexible skin by one of its pioneers, Takao Someya. In Robot Futures I argue that active robotic prostheses will be one of the biggest positive social goods that robotics will provide to society in the next two decades. One major challenge with all robot systems, prostheses or otherwise, has always been tactile sensing, and Someya reports not only on his own research into extremely flexible circuitry that can adhere to human skin and joints as easily as a temporary child’s tattoo; he also reports on Zhenan Bao’s Stanford University research program that is yielding pressure sensors for such e-skin that are so sensitive they can detect the weight of a single fly. This is a remarkable step forward for electronic skin, and this in turn has the potential to revolutionize the perceptual side of prosthetics- once the brain-skin interface is solved- a complex task not to be underestimated.  New manufacturing processes make me hopeful that, one day, such e-skin may be produced in large enough quantity and at cheap enough cost points that it may herald a sea change in how robots feel the world. Of course, the dystopian possible robot futures are always just around the corner as well. Someya writes that “cameras see more clearly than our own eyes, so why not build super e-skins that have more tactile abilities than our own skins?” There are some great stories you we can imagine in futures where we do not know just how much information our new business colleague collects when she shakes my hand- is she wearing regular skin, or is she measuring my GSR, my heart rate, and establishing a baseline for just how anxious I am going into that meeting?

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