New Robot Finger Out-Senses Humans
June 21, 2012

New Robot Finger Out-Senses Humans

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Lee Rannals for

The day dreamed up by Isaac Asimov in his novels has started to unfold, as robots have become one step closer to being better than man at the sense of touch.

Researchers with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering have developed a robot finger called BioTac that is more sensitive to touch than the human hand, capable of identifying randomly selected material 85 percent of the time.

The finger has a fingerprint on its "skin" that gives it more sensitivity to vibration than previous machines. It also has a soft coating similar to human tissue.

The researchers wrote in the journal Frontiers in Neurorobotics that they were able to make BioTac distinguish 117 common materials gathered from fabric, stationary, and hardware stores.

BioTac was rarely confused when trying to discern between pairs by similar textures that human subjects often were confused by.

The robot finger has a tiny microphone inside called a hydrophone that is used to pick up vibrations. This microphone is typically used to help detect noises underwater.

As the finger slides over the surface of an object, the skin vibrates in characteristic ways to report back what it is sensing. When humans try to identify an object by touching it, they use a range of movements base on prior experience with similar objects.

The scientists also added features that allow the finger to monitor direction and temperature.

The dream of BioTac is that one day it will be able to be used in prostheses, personal assistive robots, and consumer product testing, according to the researchers.

The finger is also able to discern where and in which direction forces are applied to the fingertip, and even the thermal properties of an object.

"If you have ever had your fingers so numb from the cold that you couldn´t feel things, your hands are almost useless, if you can´t feel what you´re touching, it slips, you can´t do things, it´s as if you´re paralyzed," Professor of Biomedical Engineering Gerald Loeb said in a statement. "By adding tactile sensing to prosthetic hands you can overcome that problem."

The researchers are now selling BioTac sensors to help other researchers and manufacturers build industrial robots and prosthetic hands.

The finger is just another example of an advancement researchers are making in the field of robotics in carrying out human-type tasks.

Japanese researchers have developed a robot that is able to perform functions it was programmed to do by using past experience and knowledge to make an educated guess.

The Self-Organizing Incremental Neural Network (SOINN) technology from the Tokyo Institute of Technology is expected to be able to learn like a child over time.

Scientists at Tel Aviv University's Blavatnik School of Computer Science have created PCs that feel "regret" so that the machines make better decisions next time when processing information.