Individuals—and different cultures—worldwide have varying perceptions of how robots should look, and what they should do. Dating back to the first popular science fiction books and movies, our fascination with robots has only continued to accelerate. And thanks to the work of scientists around the globe, it is a field that has continued to evolve impressively. With the advent of technology such as 3D printing, robots today are being created in ways most of us never would have expected—and one day, we may even be creating them at home ourselves.
Along with progress in creating robots comes new ways to imbue them with intelligence. Now, a £1 million research project, paid for by the Leverhulme Trust under the Research Leadership Award scheme, will be led by Dr. Nathan Lepora of the University of Bristol and Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL). The research team will be working to further their creation of a biomimetic forebrain for robot touch over the next five years.
Inspired by the neural systems of humans and mammals overall, the team is trying to create similar patterns through digital modeling that will cause robots to perform basic tasks using a 3D printed robot hand with advanced dexterity. Their goal is to create robots that will be able to handle the modern tasks we need them to do—on their own. From the assembly line to the operating room, the connection must be made between touch and intelligence.
“People see a robotics revolution happening but many things won’t be achieved if robots don’t have hands that they can use to dexterously control the world around them through a sense of touch,” said Dr. Lepora, Senior Lecturer in Robotics at the University of Bristol and BRL.
“It’s about bringing together tactile hands and algorithms based on how the brain works. Why is it so difficult? The human hand has evolved over tens of millions of years. People’s intelligence has evolved in tandem with their hands to give them their unique role in the animal kingdom of being able to manipulate their surroundings so profoundly. So replicating that in a robotic device is both a challenge and an inspiration.”
The Tactile Robotics research team has been behind work such as the TacTip, a tactile fingertip that is 3D printed operating through a sensor. Work on the TacTip has been ongoing for a decade, recently winning the Harvard University International Soft Robotics competition. Dr. Lepora was behind that project as well, as his team sought to begin creating robots with an artificial sense of touch. For the TacTip, they mounted a small camera inside the fingertip. Acting as a tracking device for ‘pins’ similar to the sensory receptors in the human finger, the cameras were able to give the 3D printed fingertip the desired dexterity coupled with intelligence.
University of Bristol]
“An artificial sense of touch is the key for enabling future robots to have human-like dexterity. Applications of artificial touch span from the future robotization of manufacturing, food production and healthcare, to prosthetic hands that restore a sense of touch,” said Dr. Lepora regarding that project.