Researchers in Singapore have developed a revolutionary new type of synthetic skin that could one day restore the sense of touch to people with prosthetic limbs – or create a new breed of androids that can feel pleasure and pain just like us.
While modern artificial hands can pick up and manipulate objects the next generation could detect textures, or even sense temperature and feel pain.
The system, called Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin, or ACES, is made up of groups of tiny sensors that researchers at the National University of Singapore say can process information faster than the human nervous system.
The “electronic skin” can already recognise 20 to 30 different textures and can read Braille letters with more than 90% accuracy.
“So humans need to slide to feel texture, but in this case the skin, with just a single touch, is able to detect textures of different roughness,” said research team leader Benjamin Tee, adding that AI algorithms let the device learn quickly.
A demonstration showed the device could detect that a squishy stress ball was soft, and determine that a solid plastic ball was hard. “When you lose your sense of touch, you essentially become numb… and prosthetic users face that problem,” said Tee.
“So by recreating an artificial version of the skin, for their prosthetic devices, they can hold a hand and feel the warmth and feel that it is soft, how hard are they holding the hand,” said Tee.
Tee said the concept was inspired by a scene from the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back in which the Jedi warrior Luke Skywalker loses his right hand and it is replaced by a robotic one that is seemingly able to experience the sensation of touch again.
The technology is still in the experimental stage, but there had been “tremendous interest”, especially from the medical community, Tee added.
Robots equipped with Tee’s ACES system would be capable of much more delicate manipulation than the current generation – making them ideally suited for everything from fruit picking to sex.
Similar patents developed by his team include a transparent skin that can repair itself when torn and a light-emitting material for wearable electronic devices, Tee said.