Robots might soon be clothed in human flesh

Tissue engineering normally means cultivating sheets of cells within large, sterile tanks. Sounds an efficient enough method, but the tanks, according to Oxford University biomedical researchers, “fail to mimic the real mechanical environment for cells”. In other words, they don’t and can’t stimulate the same stresses that cells encounter inside the human body, preventing “the fabrication of clinically relevant grafts”, or useful human tissue. Enter the stuff of nightmares – a humanoid cloaked in human tissue, which could be used to harvest muscle and tendon grafts.

Robots might soon be clothed in human flesh

This might sound like I’ve unearthed a long-lost sequel to Frankenstein, but Pierre-Alexis Mouthuy and Professor Andrew Carr, writing in Science Robotics, believe we already have the technology to make this a reality. They advise the production of a “humanoid-bioreactor system”, which sports “structures, dimensions, and mechanics similar to those of the human body”.

These humanoid-bioreactor systems would essentially be precursors to what the academics deem “biohybrid humanoids”; a professional term for flesh-ridden robots. The metallic skeleton would be encased in, you guessed it, human tissue. As alarming as the proposed endeavour sounds, it could prove pivotal in tackling musculoskeletal tissue disorders, which are on the rise in aging populations. Mouthuy and Carr point not only to the health risks these disorders pose – including tissue failure in tendons, ligaments, and bone – but also the social and economic burden of supporting sufferers.

More advanced bioreactors are needed to accurately target the problem, the researchers argue; all in all, the evidence suggests that “mechanical stimulation in vitro should mimic stresses experienced by the tissues in vivo as closely as possible”. In other words, for robots to become a viable means of tissue harvesting, they must emulate the inner workings of the human body. “Advances in this field,” the pair write, “could lead to exciting applications across multiple disciplines”.

It’s a move that’s sure to split the scientific community (and public at large), with some heralding it a welcome innovation in regenerative medicine, and others preferring it confined to the works of Mary Shelley. Only time – and some pretty ghoulish experiments – will tell.

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