Human-Like ‘Bio-Skin’ Gives Robots a Much More Nuanced Sense of Touch

By Shelly Fan at Singularity Hub: We humans are highly visual creatures, but our skin has a sophisticated built-in system that lets us grab a cup of coffee, peel an overripe banana, or type on a keyboard without a second thought.

Part of this dexterity comes from a separation of powers: Some components in the skin detect direct forces from the outside world—for example, pressure or pinches. Others feel when the skin is stretched—like when you open your hand to grab an extra-large mug.

Now, a team from China and Singapore has recapitulated these qualities in artificial skin. Mimicking the division of labor, the three-dimensional electronic skin, dubbed 3DAE-Skin, adopts a skin-like multilayer construction.

Using microfabrication techniques, the team engineered a flexible device—roughly the size of the tip of a human thumb—that can sense different types of forces at a resolution similar to its human counterpart.

Combined with electrical circuits that acquire data and process it with a custom deep learning algorithm, the skin could tease apart tiny differences in touch. In one study, like a blindfolded but seasoned grocery shopper, it gauged the ripeness of multiple fruits with a squeeze or two and decided whether a croissant or cake was overly stale with a poke.

While charming, a robotic grocery shopper is hardly the goal. The strategy suggests that mimicking the human skin’s architecture is a promising way to make electronic components that “feel.”

When embedded in robots or prosthetic hands, for example, the device could discern between different types of surfaces. And though it currently mimics fingertips, the skin could be used for other appendages or non-humanoid robotic systems, helping them navigate uneven terrain, for example, or in robot-assisted surgeries. The results were published in Science.

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