The Robots with a More Discerning Touch than the Human Fingertip

0 | By Michael A. Robinson

Most people could easily tell the difference between an apple and an orange, even if you put a blindfold on them.

No, they wouldn’t have to taste or smell either one to be sure. Quite simply, they could pick out each fruit just by feeling it.

Our sense of touch is a key part of the human experience. It’s why we prefer to wear shirts or blouses made of silk instead of those made from burlap.

Not only that, touch is the only one of our five senses that covers our entire bodies. And we have lots of nerve endings all over waiting to give us this tactile feedback. Consider that your fingertips alone contain some 1,000 touch receptors – roughly 100 for each tip of each finger.

If you stop and think about it for a moment, you’ll realize just how complex the sense of touch really is. It combines the feelings of hot and cold, rough and smooth, wet and dry, soft and hard, as well as pain and pleasure.

Now just imagine trying to put such a complex system into a sensor so small it could fit into the tip of a robot’s “finger.” No doubt that would a huge breakthrough.

For one thing, it would make robots far more “human”…

It would open up a whole new range of jobs for robots in industry, farming, and mining. It could even usher in the day when a robot could learn to play the electric guitar in a way that rivals the late rock legend Jimi Hendrix. And it could certainly improve the quality of life for millions of amputees around the world.

That’s why I’m so excited to introduce you to SynTouch LLC, a small San Diego startup focused on making tactile sensors for robots. The firm wants to create the same type of dynamic range as that found in the human hand.

Just last week, SynTouch announced that its BioTac fingertip performs better than human fingertips at telling the differences among a wide range of natural materials. All they have to do is feel the texture.

The firm posted the results after completing a test of the system for the University of Southern California (USC). It has a great relationship with this marquee college, by the way – the researchers launched SynTouch in 2008 after spinning it off from USC’s medical device unit.

SynTouch CEO Dr. Gerald Loeb said the progress came after the firm designed a new algorithm for its BioTac fingertip. That allows robots to make decisions about how to explore the world by imitating the way humans do it.

Like the human finger, the BioTac sensor has a soft, flexible “skin” over a liquid filling.The skin even has fingerprints on its surface. These greatly enhance its sensitivity to vibration, Loeb says. The sensor can also tell the direction from which forces are applied to the fingertip. It can even sense the thermal properties of an object it’s touching.

As the robot finger slides over the surface of an object, its skin vibrates in a human-like manner. Except the robot has an ace up its sleeve – a tiny underwater microphone that makes it more sensitive than human touch.

Loeb’s group trained the robot on 117 common materials. These included fabrics, papers, and items found at hardware stores. When confronted with a substance at random, the robot could correctly identify it 95% of the time. More to the point, the bot rarely got confused by pairs of similar textures – ones human subjects could not discern at all.

That’s why I believe the BioTac could have a profound impact on thousands of injured people by giving them much better artificial limbs.

You see, each year in the U.S., some 185,000 people lose a limb due to disease or injury. The nation now has about 1.7 million amputees.

Of course, we are making great strides in high-tech prosthetic devices. With them, many amputees lead nearly normal lives. But right now, they lack the basic human sense of touch.

To overcome this gap, SynTouch has received funding from several groups that want to see a better prosthetic hand created. The list includes the research arm of the Pentagon, which has had to provide hundreds of injured Iraq war vets with artificial limbs in the last few years.

Lifelike robots are at the top of the list of breakthroughs that will re-form the world around us in the Era of Radical Change.

We will need them to mine asteroids and explore other planets. Here on earth, they’ll do more of the repetitive tasks that humans often find boring. That will free humans to focus on the most interesting and highest-paying jobs.

No doubt we face big problems in this nation.

But we still have lots of entrepreneurs like Loeb. He’s not only a medical doctor, he co-invented the BioTac and holds a total of 54 patents.

So, as long as we keep finding guys like Dr. Loeb, the Era of Radical Change will be a very exciting – and profitable – time for America.


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