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Your future robot tattooist has steady hands, but isn't great at conversation

Your future robot tattooist has steady hands, but isn't great at conversation


'Do you want this in binary?'

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A robot tattooist might have steadier "hands" than its human counterpart, but how do you know it's not going to accidentally tattoo you all the way down to the bone? That's all I could think of watching this video of what's been billed as the "world's first tattoo by an industrial robot." At around two and a half minutes in you can see how tightly the tattoo recipient has been strapped to a chair and you think: "Ah, if he moves, then things are going to get nasty."

That aside, it's wonderful to see an industrial robot being put to this use. The project was engineered by French designers Pierre Emm and Johan da Silveira (otherwise known as Appropriate Audiences), who have prior form in this department. Back in 2014, along with fellow ENSCI Les Ateliers-graduate Piotr Widelka, they created Tatoué, a Makerbot 3D printer with a tattoo gun instead of a plastic extruder. That creation has a good claim to being one of the first robot tattooists, but Emm and da Silveira's latest work — made as part of a residency at Pier 9 in San Francisco sponsored by Autodesk — certainly ups the stakes.

(GIF credit: Autodesk/Charlie Nordstrom)

As the video explains, the process of tattooing by robot has a few steps. You've got to create a 3D scan of the target area, mock up the desired tattoo using custom computer software, and then (as we mentioned before) make sure the recipient stays very, very still. After all, industrial robots are incredibly precise, but most models are not at all responsive. That's why people are killed (very infrequently) by industrial robots: if you get in the way, they don't know to stop.

Speaking to The Verge by email, Emm and da Silveira said that the most difficult aspect of the project was adapting the arm to work on the uneven surfaces of the human body. "The body is full of surprises; there are no 'flat' parts to be found there," said the pair. They added that they eventually plan to turn their project into a commercial operation. "It was not the goal in the beginning," they said, "But many of the tattoo artists and studios we have worked with along the way are impatient to get their hands on these machines."

So, look out for a robot tattooist at a mall near you. And while you might be (justifiably) nervous about getting a tattoo from a bot, you've got admit: the finished product is very, very neat.