This February, the MIT Technology Review published the “10 breakthrough technologies” of the year handpicked by tech tycoon Bill Gates. Of which, robot dexterity was one of them. The reason being there is an increasing need to enhance these automatons’ capabilities as they continue to maneuver around our world and work alongside with other machines. 

Earlier, AIMed had also covered some of the research effort and challenges in making robots more humanlike. Recently, a group of scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) had developed a new form of electronic skin (e-skin), which may change the way robots detect and understand our surroundings. The research team is also planning to use the artificially developed layer on prosthetic limbs, to render patients a sense of touch again.

Inspired by the nervous system 

Human is sensitive; there is an estimated 45 miles of transmission fibres inside our body, bringing brain, muscles, and skin together as a nervous system. Human’s sense of touch not only facilitates spatial awareness, but also aids in communications, movements, and uses of tools in everyday lives. All these were the inspirations behind the NUS research team. 

In order to create a mimic, the researchers made use of silicon sheets, overlaid with 240 artificial mechanoreceptors to perceive and measure pressure, temperature, humidity, and points of contacts. These sensors are capable of rapidly transmitting the data into one single decoder. The team predicts that the system is able to be scaled up to 10,000 sensors. This will provide users to accumulate enough information to have control over different objects in a natural but unstructured daily living conditions. 

What’s new? 

The results of this study were published in Science Robotics last week. Elastic robotic skin has been created and tested in previous studies but what makes this e-skin special is its ability to accumulate data from multiple sensors to one centralized decoder, all at once. Its predecessors tend to transmit information in a serial manner, creating delays that obstruct reading and ultimately movements. 

“Your brain needs a lot of feedback to do your daily activities, and the skin allows you to do that. The fact that I’m sitting down and not falling over – a large part is really because I’m getting sensory information from the chair,” said Benjamin Tee, the co-author of this study who was also named 35 Innovators Under 35 by MTI Technology Review nearly four years ago. 

As mentioned, the research team is now working with engineers and neuroscientists to create a sense of touch to prosthetic limbs and Tee believes his work will “let people feel less of a sense of loss”.  

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.