8 June 2022

Scientists are building robots that can feel pain


Have they thought this through?

Scientists have made artificial skin that can feel “pain” and say it’s laying the foundation for robots that can react to an ouchie just like humans do.

When they stabbed the palm of a fully-articulated, human-shaped robot hand with a metal stick, the robot recoiled “to protect the body from further damage”.

These Scottish engineers join a long line of boffins who are trying to make robots feel pain which, given the way we already abuse our computers when they stop working, seems like a short-sighted and slightly self-destructive hobby.

Nevertheless, the new attempt from the University of Glasgow team uses a type of electronic skin that copies the way the human brain’s neural pathway learns.

Previous attempts to make sensitive “e-skin” often used an array of sensors spread across the skin’s surface, which logged data when contact was made.

From there, floods of data would be hosed to a central computer to make sense of. But this method slows down the time it takes for the computer to process the information and really limits how quickly a robot can pull her hand away from a hot stove.

And really, what’s the point in feeling pain if you can’t do anything about it? (SSRI manufacturers: feel free to use that line in any of your marketing materials.)

So the Scots did what humans do best, and turned to the supremacy of human beings to build their machines.

They modelled their electronic skin on the way the human peripheral nervous system processes data, creating what they call “in-skin learning”. The human skin sensory system immediately begins processing sensory input at the point of contact on skin itself, doing much of the heavy lifting there rather than funnelling all of that intel back to the brain.

As a result, communication channels to the brain are kept clearer, and messages to and from the brain can be lightning fast.

Similarly, the robot’s palm skin is a flexible surface filled with nanowires that feed into a grid of 168 synaptic transistors. When the skin is touched, there’s a change in electrical resistance. The harder the touch, the larger the change in resistance.

But instead of sending all that data up to a separate central computer, the researchers built a circuit into the skin that replicates a synapse. This converts the data into just a spike of voltage that changes in frequency depending on how hard the skin was touched.  

Then they taught the robot that it needed to shrink back if its palm was jabbed hard enough.

“In the future, this research could be the basis for a more advanced electronic skin which enables robots capable of exploring and interacting with the world in new ways,” said study author Fengyuan Liu.

Hopefully not one driven by revenge.

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