Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Robots with that human touch

I've been meaning to write today's post for some time now, but just kept getting bogged down with other stuff. Last month, a group of researchers at the University of California Berkeley announced a rather amazing breakthrough: something they're calling "e-skin."

It's essentially robotic skin composed of microscopic semiconductor nanowires that can effectively replicate the ability to feel. As one of the researchers puts it: "The idea is to have a material that functions like the human skin, which means incorporating the ability to feel and touch objects."

As the picture suggests, one of the main problems with robots right now is that they don't have the fine sense of touch that humans do. A robot can pick up an egg, but it might end up crushing it because it lacks that exacting ability to "feel."

The e-skin looks to fix that by giving the robot electrical stimuli that simulates the sense of touch. The material, made up of crystalline silicon, is a big breakthrough because it can conduct electricity at a very low power, as opposed to previous attempts which required a considerable amount of charge. Attempts to simulate the sense of touch by using organic materials also didn't work out because they couldn't convey the electrical impulses properly.

The research is being funded by the National Science Foundation and DARPA, the Pentagon's advanced science division. Both the military and mainstream uses are quite obvious - bomb disposal robots are becoming ubiquitous in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, so giving them an even finer sense of touch would help immensely.

In the consumer space, the article on the Berkeley site mentions that the e-skin could help restore the sense of touch to people with artificial limbs. Interestingly, DARPA's bionic arm - which the user works through a neural implant - is going into clinical tests on humans. Combine these two technologies and you've got an artificial arm that could be almost as good as the real thing. Add in a few years of further development and it stands to reason that bionic arms will soon be superior to the real thing. Where do I preorder?


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