It’s not Terminator time yet, but robots with living muscle tissue are on the way

We’re more than two decades removed from August 29, 1997,  the date that Terminator 2: Judgment Day predicted the fictional Skynet artificial intelligence system would become self-aware. Now, thanks to researchers at the University of Tokyo, the dream (or nightmare?) of robots with living tissue covering a robotic skeleton is no longer exclusively the stuff of science fiction.

While their work is still at a relatively early stage, they have discovered a method for growing living muscles over a robotic frame. Specifically, they have found a way to turn individual muscle precursor cells, called myoblasts, into muscle cell-filled hydrogel sheets that can be used to give robots functioning muscles with an impressive amount of flexibility. In a demo, electric currents are used to contact the lab-grown muscles on one side of a robotic finger, thereby allowing it to pick up and move a ring. Stimulating the muscle on the other side of the finger then prompts the biohybrid robot to put the ring down again.

“Many researchers have proposed biohybrid robots composed of a skeletal muscle tissue cultured on a flexible substrate, and succeeded in deformation of the substrate by contractions of the skeletal muscle tissues,” Shoji Takeuchi, a researcher on the project, told Digital Trends. “However, the contractions of the skeletal muscle tissues do not last for [the] long term due to spontaneous shrinkage of the tissues caused by their tension. The spontaneous shrinkage increases with the course of culture, inducing bending of the flexible substrate without the contractions. The skeletal muscle tissues [also] becomes much shorter than their initial length and impossible to contract.”

In contrast, the antagonistic pair of skeletal muscles the team has created can balance the shrinkage and contraction required very effectively. As a result, they can achieve not only longevity but also a full 90-degree range of movement — similar to what you would find in a real muscle.

Despite the obvious pop culture reference point, we’re still a ways off from real-life Terminator robots. Instead, the likely immediate application of these robots will be more accurate “pick-and-place” robots. This refers to the ultra-precise robots arms used for tasks like assembly, inspection, bin-picking and packaging. In other words, if real Terminator-style cyborgs really do get off the ground, expect them to find a job in locations like Amazon’s fulfillment centers. But that may not be their only potential application.

“Although this is just a preliminary result, our approach might be a great step toward the construction of more complex systems,” Takeuchi said. “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.”

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