“A great science fiction detective story” - Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine
A news item about a new artificial skin for robots that gives them a haptic sense — the ability to feel — has been getting a lot of play lately.
I haven’t found the particular paper referenced in the item except behind a paywall, but the topic of sensitive robotic skin is the subject of a number of papers that are freely available and I’ve provided links to eight of them below
Research in this area is pragmatic, as one might expect. Giving a robot a sense of touch is an important safety issue. Robots have traditionally been segregated from human beings in labs or on the factory floor. Increasingly, however, we share the same space — they have become our housecleaners and they are beginning to drive our cars (even legally, on public roads).
As this process progresses, building haptic sensitivity into our robotics becomes more and more important if robots are to be able to avoid accidentally damaging our property and our bodies.
But embodying our robots in sensitive bodies will also begin to have deeper effects on our lives and integrate us in ways that might not seem obvious at first glance.
Touch has a social meaning. Human being don’t just communicate through words and gestures — at a profound level that is engrained both evolutionarily and culturally, we engage in haptic communictaion. Touching each other means something and it can also evoke a powerful response that is sometimes beyond our conscious control, whether it is a modestly interactive handshake, a more expressive kiss on both cheeks or arm around the shoulder, or a more intimate kiss, stroke, embrace, or massage.
And, of course, haptics are not only being embedded in the artificial bodies we build to function in the physical world, but are also increasingly also being built into the artificial worlds in which we natural humans spend more and more of our time. For now practical, commercially viable haptics are limited to the controls on our devices, but given how ubiquitous these controls have become, isn’t it inevitable that the online environment (and other artificial places) will become something we can touch through our avatars?
By embodying our robotics in haptically-enabled forms and by increasingly overlapping our environment with our robots, we are necessarily inviting them into the pre-existing and emotionally charged world of our haptic interaction and by embedding haptics in our artificial environments we are pushing the same boundary in the other direction.
Below: a skinless animatronic baby. It’s creepy precisely because while it looks mechanical, its gestures nonethelss evoke an innate, involuntary protective response. When gestures are combined with and made interactive with a responsive, flesh-like skin, this type of response will be intensified.
Research on Sensitive Robot Skin [all in PDF format]
- Soft Artificial Skin with Multi-Modal Sensing Capability Using Embedded Liquid Conductors
- A “Sensitive Skin” for Robotic Companions Featuring Temperature, Force, and Electric Field Sensors
- A Tactile Sensing Element for a Whole Body Robot Skin
- Telemetric Robot Skin
- Capacitive Skin Sensors for Robot Impact Monitoring
- A Robust, Low-Cost and Low-Noise Artificial Skin for Human-Friendly Robots
- Modular Skin for Humanoid Robot Systems
- Sensitive Skin for a Humanoid Robot