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Osaka University is Making Artificial Skin for Robots

When we think of robots, we often picture cold, metallic humanoids that can speak, walk, or perform certain tasks. However, with Japan’s latest innovation, that image may soon change. Last year, a group of researchers from Osaka University developed artificial skin that could help robots “feel” pain. The goal of the study is to transform these exciting mechanical gadgets into life-like machines that can empathize with their human companions.

This isn’t the first time this team of researchers have dabbled in “touchy-feely” robots. Back in 2011, they made Affetto — a highly realistic-looking robot child that is able to “feel” and distinguish between a light-loving touch and a hard hit. Affetto, which a decade ago was only a head that perform facial expressions like frowning and smiling, now has a full body equipped with the artificial skin the Osaka scientists recently developed.

How “touchy-feely” robots work
The key to making “feeling” robots is to understand how the human body works. Humans have this thing called mechanoreceptors. Present near the bone and in both the superficial and deeper layers of the skin, these somatosensory receptors are the ones that enable the skin to translate physical touch into something that can be read by the brain.

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To replicate mechanoreceptors, Osaka’s team of researchers are trying to leverage soft haptic technology. Soft haptic technology pertains to any device that can create an experience of touch through the applications of forces, vibrations, or motions to the user. This technology is often integrated into gaming devices such as controllers to help gamers get a sense of what is happening in-game through little rumbles and much more. In some cases, soft haptic technology is also integrated into connected devices such as tablets to let users enjoy realistic tactile sensations from screens.

The structure to create this technology is very complex, which is why designers probably needed to use net ties to meet its PCB requirements. By enabling the shorting between nets through multilayer pads, it’s possible to provide the device with enough power to transmit the data to computers without needing a lot of wires. With a reliable soft haptic technology to rely on, Affetto’s creators were able to give the robot child a “pain nervous system.” It is powered by AI and custom skin tech that let it “react” to sensations through a variety of facial expressions.

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The future of robots like Affetto
While true “touchy-feely” robots are still a few years into the future, scientists who work with artificial skin hope that robots like these can pave the way for human-like machines that can revolutionize the healthcare industry in many ways. According to Kingson Man, a neuroscientist from The University of Southern California, the creation of artificial robot skin could potentially make room for a richer interaction between machines and the world in the future.

A professor from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, John Yiannis Aloimonos, added that artificial skin might also be able to help robots perceive their surroundings better in a more detailed and more sensitive way. This will not only help them move much more safely, but it will also make them safer when operating near people. Through developments like this, we can all look forward to a world where robots are more seamlessly integrated into society.