This Is How We’ll Engineer Artificial Touch

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Take a Jeopardy! guess: this body part was once referred to as the “consummation of all perfection as an instrument.” Answer: “What is the human hand?” Our hands are insanely complex feats of evolutionary engineering. Densely-packed sensors provide intricate and ultra-sensitive feelings of touch. Dozens of joints synergize to give us remarkable dexterity. A “sixth sense” awareness of where our hands are in space connects them to the mind, making it possible to open a door, pick up a mug, and pour coffee in total darkness based solely on what they feel. So why can’t robots do the same? In a new article in Science, Dr. Subramanian Sundaram at Boston and Harvard University argues that it’s high time to rethink robotic touch. Scientists have long dreamed of artificially engineering robotic hands with the same dexterity and feedback that we have. Now, after decades, we’re at the precipice of a breakthrough thanks to two major advances. One, we better understand how touch works in humans. Two, we have the mega computational powerhouse called machine learning to recapitulate biology in silicone. Robotic hands with a sense of touch—and the AI brain to match it—could overhaul our idea of robots. Rather than charming, if somewhat clumsy, novelties, robots equipped with human-like hands are far more capable of routine tasks—making food, folding laundry—and specialized missions like surgery or rescue. But machines aren’t the only ones to gain. For humans, robotic prosthetic hands equipped with accurate, sensitive, and high-resolution artificial touch is the next giant breakthrough to seamlessly link a biological brain to a mechanical hand. Here’s what Sundaram laid out to get us to that future. How Does Touch Work, Anyway? Let me start with some bad news: reverse engineering the human hand is really hard. It’s jam-packed with over 17,000 sensors tuned to mechanical forces alone, not to mention sensors for temperature and pain. These force “receptors” rely on physical distortions—bending, stretching, curling—to signal to the brain. The good news? We now have a far clearer picture of how biological touch works. Imagine a coin pressed into your palm. The sensors embedded in the skin, called mechanoreceptors, capture that pressure, and “translate” it into electrical signals. These signals pulse through the nerves on your hand to the spine, and eventually make their way to the brain, where they gets interpreted as “touch.” At least, that’s the simple version, but one too vague and not particularly useful for recapitulating touch. To get there, we need to zoom in. The cells on your hand that collect touch signals, called tactile “first order” neurons (enter Star Wars joke) are like upside-down trees. Intricate branches extend from their bodies, buried deep in the skin, to a vast area of the hand. Each neuron has its own little domain called “receptor fields,” although some overlap. Like governors, these neurons manage a semi-dedicated region, so that any signal they transfer to the higher-ups—spinal cord and brain—is actually integrated from multiple sensors across a large distance. It gets more intricate. The skin itself is a living entity that can regulate its own mechanical senses through hydration. Sweat, for example, softens the skin, which changes how it interacts with surrounding objects. Ever tried putting a glove onto a sweaty hand? It’s far more of a struggle than a dry one, and feels different. In a way, the hand’s tactile neurons play a game of Morse Code. Through different frequencies of electrical beeps, they’re able to transfer information about an object’s size, texture, weight, and other properties, while also asking the brain for feedback to better control the object. Biology to Machine Reworking all of our hands’ greatest features into machines is absolutely daunting. But robots have a leg up—they’re not restricted to biological hardware. Earlier this year, for example, a team from Columbia en...

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