Canadian scientists are developing a robot that mimics the human face's expressions and human hand’s tactile processes, which they say will be useful in areas like nursing, nuclear plant maintenance, and explosive device disposal. It could even act as a companion.

Leadscientist Emil Petriu, a computer engineer at the University of Ottawa who has done work for the Canadian Space Agency, described his research in a phone interview with CBC News.

A key part of the technology is a new biology-inspired touch-sensitive artificial skin that is able to sense contact, as well as the profile, temperature and elasticity of object surfaces, ultimately raising the tactile sensitivity of robots to the human level. The artificial skin is made of elastic silicon and embedded with tactical and temperature sensors.

"We are using biology as our source of inspiration. Human beings are most comfortable interacting with devices that move and respond the same way we do," said Petriu.

In a lab, he and his colleagues are using a robot as their test subject, methodically replacing its mechanical parts with more life-like parts they are designing. They will start with the head and then the hands.

They are designing some of the mechanical and electronic sensor elements for devices, such as intricate prosthetic limbs that can covey large amounts of information through a sense of touch.

For robots to perform some of the function of humans, in a nursing or home care capacity for instance, Petriu believes they must be user-friendly in key ways.

If a robot has to come into physical contact with a person, the interaction will be more comfortable if its skin is warm to our touch and Petriu said. "It's critical that they should have a warm, fuzzy feeling or they don't feel human."

He is able to warm up the surface of the prosthesis to match human skin temperature by embedding white tubes that circulate hot water in the artificial skin.

Petriu is also mounting a set of actuators (artificial muscles embedded as tiny motors) on various parts of a newly acquired, anatomically correct model of a human skull — complete with a spring-loaded jaw that replicates the movement of the lower face.

The actuators will then be covered with an elastic skin. The aim is to produce a highly life-like face, capable of representing complex human expressions ranging from surprise to anger.

Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to identify the value of facial expression for interpersonal communication and later scientists created a formal coding system to link various expressions with particular combinations of muscles, Petriu said.

This same coding system will provide the basis for programming the movements of artificial skin over Petriu's test skull so that expressions appear familiar and authentic.

Petriu believes robots could one day be our companions in a symbiotic relationship.

"Our society is becoming more and more disconnected," he said, pointing to a generation that increasingly spends time alone, socializing virtually.

If such people miss the physical companionship of others, the presence of a robot could meet this need without the complications of a human relationship, said Petriu.

"We are, after all, still social beings."