As if it were a science fiction movie, robots could soon feel pain thanks to the development of a new electronic skin that can mimic uncomfortable sensations by scientists at the University of Glasgow (UK).
The mechanical hand equipped with the intelligent skin with which they carried out the experiment showed a remarkable ability to learn to react to external stimuli, such as a prick in the palm of the hand.
The prototype electronic skin that allows robots to register pain is featured in the journal Science Robotics, claiming it’s a significant advance in touch-sensitive robotics that could even improve prosthetics, giving them near-human touch sensitivity.
How does it work?
The artificial skin prototype uses a new type of processing system based on ” synaptic transistors, which mimic the neural pathways of the brain to learn” to feel pain, just like the devices in the well-known novel “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline.
Sensors like these typically produce a large volume of data that can take time for a computer to properly process and respond to, causing delays that would reduce the skin’s potential effectiveness in real-world tasks. But engineers have managed to eliminate the delays and power consumption of earlier concepts, inspired by the human peripheral nervous system.
A network of 168 synaptic transistors, made up of zinc oxide nanowires that can be spread out on a flexible surface, were deployed on a human-shaped “hand” equipped with skin sensors to create a robotic appendage that was able to differentiate between a touch light and heavy.
The sensor registers a change in its electrical resistance when touched, with a light touch corresponding to a small change and a stronger touch creating a larger change. The integrated circuit in the skin acts as an artificial synapse, reducing the input to a simple spike and accelerating the reaction process.
By setting an input voltage threshold to trigger a reaction, the researchers found they could cause the robot’s hand to recoil from a sharp blow to the center of the palm. That is, the robot learned to move away from this simulated source of discomfort through an onboard information processing process that mimics how the human nervous system works.
“We all learn early in our lives to respond appropriately to unexpected stimuli such as pain to prevent us from injuring ourselves again,” experts say. “Of course, the development of this new form of electronic skin did not actually involve inflicting pain as we know it, it is simply a shorthand way of explaining the learning process from external stimuli.”
“ In the future , this research could be the basis for more advanced electronic skin that allows robots to explore and interact with the world in new ways, or to build prosthetics that are capable of near-human levels of tactile sensitivity.” Fengyuan said. Liu, a member of the BEST group and co-author of the paper.
Referencia: ‘Printed Synaptic Transistors based Electronic Skin for Robots to Feel and Learn’, is published in Science Robotics. The research was supported by funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).