Before we can construct the realistic humanoid robots that populate our most vivid sci-fi-driven dreams, there are a lot of human systems that researchers are going to have to emulate synthetically. Not the least challenging is human skin; filled with nerve endings and able to heal itself over time, our skin serves as both a massive sensory system and a barrier between our innards and the outside world. Now, an interdisciplinary team of Stanford researchers has created the first synthetic material that is both self-healing at room temperature and sensitive to touch - a breakthrough that could be the beginnings of a new kind of robot skin (and in the meantime enjoy much more practical applications like enhanced prosthetics).
The "uncanny valley" principle - the idea that when robots (or politicians) look human but not quite realistic enough, it makes real humans terribly uncomfortable - is a persistent problem for roboticists pursuing realistic humanoid robots. But research also shows that the uncanny valley effect can be somewhat mitigated by making the robotic more attractive and lifelike. To that end, Italian roboticists have created FACE, a realistic humanoid bust designed to closely mimic the many facial expressions our facial muscles are capable of.
DARPA is poised to launch a new Grand Challenge for a humanoid robot, according to robotics insiders - and the result could be a souped-up metal soldier running alongside BigDog, driving an ATV, unlocking doors and clearing a path to safety for its human counterparts. There's no official agency announcement yet, but robotics companies heard all about it at a recent industry day.