These Scientists Have Developed Artificial Skin That Can Mimic Uncomfortable Sensations – And Make Robots Feel Pain

The development of new electronic skin will enable it to feel as it mimics uncomfortable sensations.

It uses a processing system based on ‘synaptic transistors, which emulates the brain’s neural pathways to learn to feel pain.

A team of engineers from the University of Glasgow has brought this new ‘e-skin’ which is a huge development in the field of touch-sensitive robotics.

The researchers printed a grid of 168 synaptic transistors made from zinc-oxide nanowires directly onto the surface of a flexible plastic surface. They then connected the synaptic transistor with the skin sensor over the palm of a human-shaped robot hand.

The sensor detects a change in its electrical resistance when it is touched, with a light touch corresponding to a small change and a harder touch creating a larger change.

There is a circuit built into the skin that acts as an artificial synapse. It reduces the input down into a simple spike and speeds up the reaction.

Different outputs of that voltage were spiked to teach the skin appropriate responses to simulated pain, which would trigger the robot hand to react.

The development of the electronic skin is the latest breakthrough in flexible, stretchable printed surfaces from the University of Glasgow’s Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) Group, led by Professor Ravinder Dahiya.

‘We all learn early on in our lives to respond appropriately to unexpected stimuli like pain in order to prevent us from hurting ourselves again,’ he said.

‘Of course, the development of this new form of electronic skin didn’t really involve inflicting pain as we know it — it’s simply a shorthand way to explain the process of learning from external stimulus.

‘What we’ve been able to create through this process is an electronic skin capable of distributed learning at the hardware level, which doesn’t need to send messages back and forth to a central processor before taking action. 

‘Instead, it greatly accelerates the process of responding to touch by cutting down the amount of computation required.

‘We believe that this is a real step forward in our work towards creating large-scale neuromorphic printed electronic skin capable of responding appropriately to stimuli.’

The new research has been published in the journal Science Robotics.

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