How Close Are We to 3D Printing Humanoid Robots?

We may not have a Dolores any time soon, but we could have fully functioning organs.

2. 11. 17 by June Javelosa
HBO
Image by HBO

Westworld in the Real World

With every step we advance in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), it seems we can’t help but ask, “Is this something that will bring us closer to ‘Westworld?’”

Since it premiered last year, HBO’s hit sci-fi series has become the mainstream benchmark for AI systems. In the show’s fictional world, robots can think and function like humans, and they are nearly indistinguishable from their human counterparts. It has created this sense of wonder at what’s possible given today’s quickly advancing technology. However, it has also reinforced how very far we still have to go before we can create AIs with the same level of sophistication.

Taken at face value, we know “Westworld” hosts are incredibly advanced AIs that probably have some sort of deep learning mechanism that allows them to quickly respond to their environments. Their mechanical skeletal systems are so sophisticated that they actually allow for fluid, human-like movements and facial expressions. While not explicitly addressed in the series, it seems the host’s bodies are built using organic material and a 3D-printing process, and though we may not have our own Dolores any time soon, we do already have 3D-printed organic materials.

At the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, Dr. Anthony Atala has been using his Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System (ITOP) to print cells, bones, and even organs. ITOP prints using human cells and creates lab-grown organs that could soon be surgically implanted into the human body without risk of rejection. “We take a very small piece of their tissue. We then start to expand those cells outside of the body. We use those cells to create new tissues and organs that we can then put back into the body,” Atala explained in an interview with Circa.

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Not Quite There Yet

It would be exciting to think this technology could be used to engineer artificial systems for machines, but the possibility of printing an entire body, complete with functioning systems, is a long way off. It’s one thing to print skin, for example, but to expect it to thrive against a metal, synthetic frame or skeleton is another challenge altogether. You’ll need an entire network of functioning, complex internal systems to make it work.

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3D-printed organs could prove far more useful in living things in which existing mechanisms for life are already in place. According to Atala, they have already managed to print bone, muscle, and cartilage using ITOP, after which they successfully implanted it into rats. After months of observation, they discovered that the implanted tissue developed a system of blood vessels and nerves. This breakthrough in their study will allow them to move on to human trials, where they can attempt to replicate the same results. But even that could take a long time given that have to wait for government approval.

Atala is particularly optimistic about the future of this field, however, noting that while we may not be close to producing “Westworld”-level AIs anytime soon, “[the] way science is moving, I think that pretty much every organ in the body will eventually, in the next several decades, be achievable.” If you think waiting for the next season of “Westworld” is hard, just imagine what life is like for the thousands of people currently on the organ donor waiting list and how excited they must be for these new breakthroughs in 3D-printing technology.


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