Researchers at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering published a study yesterday in which they attempt to grant a robotic arm the same sense of touch that we humans are born with. Not only did they succeed, the robot actually became more proficient at feeling out its environment than us fleshy meatbags, thanks entirely to a synthetic “skin” designed to precisely mimic the human fingertip.
Dubbed “BioTac,” the faux skin is, in fact, a tactile sensor design that liberally swipes ideas from Mother Nature. Like the fingers I’m using to type these words, it’s comprised of a soft, flexible outer layer surrounding a core of fluid. The researchers even went so far as to give the BioTac synthetic fingerprints that, like our own, allow the sensor to pick up intensely minute differences in various textures. When the sensor is run along an object, friction causes barely perceptible vibrations in the surface of the skin, that are then analyzed to determine what object the robotic hand might be touching. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, despite the fact that it’s the same process humans go through every time we touch an object and almost all of us take it entirely for granted.
More impressive however, is just how good the sensor is at determining what texture it’s discovered. According to the official announcement, the robotic arm was able to correctly determine what it was touching 95 percent of the time after a mere five exploratory movements. Humans rely on such movements to determine information about their surroundings (and have been doing so for millions of years), but according to the study the robotic hand “was only rarely confused by a pair of similar textures that human subjects making their own exploratory movements could not distinguish at all.”
As for what this research means for the future, the authors of the study are quick to point out that while the faux skin sensor is very adept at determining textures by touch, it is unable to decide which textures are preferable. Likewise, it’s unable to pick up other sensations that humans require such as heat and cold. However, the researchers remain hopeful that it “could be used in human prostheses or to assist companies who employ experts to judge the feel of consumer products and even human skin.”
If you’d like to see BioTac in action, the official announcement conveniently included a handy video which you can find embedded below. Alternately, you can spend the immediate future petting a fluffy kitten and letting your toaster know just how awesome it feels. It won’t be long before the metal ones will know the joy of a warm baby cat for themselves, so we ought to enjoy our tactile superiority while we can.