Wearable Tech

We’ve all seen those films where robots take over, where half-human half-machine creations are evil and other weird or frankly peculiar portrayals of a disturbing future where we are slaves to our robot masters. When robots look and act too much like us, it’s understandably disconcerting – and there’s even a name for this.

A fear of all things android is quite natural though and related to our fundamental understanding of control. As a species, we are primed to fear our inability to control the future. So we say let’s relax – and perhaps embrace it?

We can be robots

In the not-too-distant future, you’ll be able to dump that bag full of tech and cables and become the hardware and software yourself. So time to drop the fear and embrace change, folks!

We’re talking about e-skin. Smart, wearable technology is already a thing, with printable circuit fabric (PCF) making waves for the last few years. Researchers at the University of Cambridge announced they’d managed to print washable, stretchable, and breathable electronic circuits into fabric back in 2017. This means we will start to see environmentally friendly, printed circuits, such as personal health and fitness technology, wearable energy-harvesting and storage in the shops pretty soon!

Say goodbye to awkward tech, weighed down bags and pockets, and wave a digital digit at the new era of artificial ‘e-skin’, a step beyond the ever-advancing possibilities of wearable tech.

Scientists and researchers are looking into how flexible, bendable and stretchable electronic circuits can be applied directly to the skin.

Practically speaking, while it might be awesome to have some smartphone functionality built into your arm, what’s even cooler is that this cutting-edge tech might help replace feeling for people who have suffered burns or those that have nervous system issues.

Put simply, imagine an electronic tattoo.

Way back in In 2004, Japanese and US researchers revealed a pressure sensor circuit made from pre-stretched and thinned out silicon strips that could be applied to the forearm.

Of course, inorganic materials such as silicon are inflexible – but skin is flexible and stretchy. So researchers are investigating electronic circuits made from organic materials (such as special plastics or graphene (as mentioned above) that conduct electricity) for e-skin apps.

Your average e-skin is currently made of different electronic components – like transistors, LEDs, sensors and solar cells. These are often built of very thin layers of material that are sprayed onto a flexible base, that genuinely seems like skin.

While it’s still early days, current e-skin apps are being used on robots – giving automatons more human-like sensing capabilities – and we’re back to the creepy curve of Uncanny Valley.

E-skin devices can detect approaching objects and measure temperature and applied pressure – helping robots work with greater safety by being more aware of their surroundings, and avoiding pesky humans.

Hurdles

All sounds fantastic, right? Well, there’s an odd hurdle with e-skin. It develops wrinkles, just like human skin. But you can’t grab the skin cream to solve these wrinkles – they cause the circuit’s layers to come apart, causing failure.

The current thought on organic circuitry is that it isn’t very reliable and gives pretty poor electronic performance.

On top of this, electrons – as in the energy needed to make things happen in the circuit – move a thousand times slower than in the inorganic materials used in traditional electronics. This makes your cool new e-skin device super slow. And there’s the added issue that the organic materials currently under the microscope don’t deal with the heat generated by circuits as well as inorganic materials.

If it fits, wear it

Slipping a circuit onto or just under your skin isn’t as complex as say, an organ transplant, but there is still the issue of integration with the human body and nervous system. Of course, the organic materials being considered are carbon-based (just like us) so perhaps more likely to be biocompatible and not rejected by the body.

However, carbon particles could lead to inflammation and potentially, even tumours.

But hold on… don’t worry too much – researchers at the University of Osaka are leading research to develop an e-skin style brain implant that could be activated just by thinking. This could also help medical professionals in disease diagnosis.

Whatever is around the corner, e-skin is fascinating and exciting. It does stir up some big issues in terms of morality, privacy and even hacking. It’s bad enough when someone steals your email ID – imagine if someone hacked into your brain!

We’re seeing prototype e-skin devices gaining momentum in the market, with companies even offering developer kits to help get their technologies adopted faster.

E-skin could help in so many aspects of life – starting with infant and pensioner care, for example, along with mobility, vision and hearing assistance.

Potentially, e-skin could help harvest energy from the body’s movement. Imagine being on a crowded tube, but knowing everyone on that train is adding power to the national grid.

Final questions to ponder. How far are you willing to go to enhance your life? Are you willing to be considered part human, part machine? A cyborg? We’ll leave that up to you!