Robot sex dreamers, amputees, Spider-Man fans, and heart surgeons, take note: Cyborg skin is closer to becoming reality than most of us realize, and it could change the way we interact with each other forever. Last month, a study describing lab-made plastic skin that can detect heat, pressure, and even light and sound through electronic sensors was published in the journal Nature.
Today, the skins send info wirelessly to computers, but eventually, data from the skins may even be fed directly into the brain, extending human perception. When that happens, we’ll need to decide what limits to place on the technology, which will enable brand new kinds of spying and identity theft. In an era when our government tracks our email, think what it could do with mind-reading chips literally at its fingertips.
This week, study author and Tokyo University engineering professor Takao Someya published an IEEE Spectrum review of the new technology, where he speculated on potential future uses. Because the e-skins are ultrathin (1/10th the thickness of typical kitchen plastic wrap), bendable, and heat and water resistant, they may one day be affixed to the wrist to measure vital signs discreetly, wrapped around a beating heart to prevent cardiac arrest, or attached to the steering wheel of a car to measure the driver's fitness to drive. But the potential goes beyond measuring physical states.
Someya's skins can detect heat and pressure with greater sensitivity than human skin, which means they could be used to infer mental states from physical indicators of emotion. Feeding sensory data from the skins into machine learning algorithms could allow us to detect excitement from the heat of someone’s handshake, nervousness from a sweaty palm, or fear from chill or subtle trembling. In principle, e-skins could even be made sensitive to sound waves and light, essentially acting as ears and eyes embedded in skin and extending the human ability to perceive, a prospect right out of science fiction.
Remember Spidey Sense, the ripple that Spider-Man feels when a bad guy approaches his psychic web? In the review, Someya writes that his lab is working on e-skins that do something similar by providing enhanced perception:
An ultrasonic skin covering an entire robot body could work as a 360-degree proximity sensor, measuring the distance between the robot and external obstacles. This could prevent the robot from crashing into walls or allow it to handle our soft, fragile human bodies with more care. For humans, it could provide prosthetics or garments that are hyperaware of their surroundings.
In principle, e-skins may make it possible to send information from human to computer, or even, given recent advances in computer-brain interfaces, between two human hands (or other organs) directly by touch. This technology would open up a number of intriguing possibilities, not the least of which is cyberskin sexuality, with humans and robots communicating via touch with enhanced perception. Imagine what the world will come up with when human-robot couples can talk by touch. We'll know what androids dream of, and it may not be electric sheep.
This is where the possibilities become dizzying and the ethics blurry. If information transfer becomes possible via e-skin handshake, it will also become easier to steal and spread. Imagine simply touching a computer to access its data or shaking hands with a leaker to hand over government secrets.
Hiding information from others will become difficult, too. Because the e-skins are thin, transparent, and can conform to just about any surface, you won’t know if people around you are wearing them covertly. And even if you could stop digital information from being transmitted, how could you conceal your body’s natural physiological processes? If researchers develop skins that can infer mental states, your emotions—I’m angry or embarrassed or turned on—might be decodable by anyone wearing a skin.
In typical futurist fashion, Someya deflects these fears. In the review, he argues that any risk his cyborg skins pose is outweighed by the great potential they have for keeping people safe and preventing biomedical disasters like heart attacks and car crashes.
"Skins that know what we’re saying without having to say it, skins that can communicate themselves, skins that extend our human capacities in directions we haven’t yet imagined—the possibilities are endless," Someya writes giddily.
Tokyo University bioethicist Osamu Kanamori put it well at a global symposium on "Neuro-ethics and Brain Machine Interfaces" that I attended in January 2008 at Kyoto University: The instinct to innovate is human nature. Brain-driven robots, mind-reading magnets, all new tools to solve health and communication problems, are as "natural" to humans as an umbrella to keep rain off our heads, he explained at the conference. Constraining biotech is not the answer—adapting is.
[Image: Flickr user A.J Photo]