Robots May Soon Be Able To Feel Pain

Robots have had an easy ride up to now. charles taylor/Shutterstock

No longer shall our robot creations be confined to a meaningless, mechanical existence as mere glorified can-openers. Researchers from the University of Hannover are currently developing new technology that could enable robots to “experience pain,” breathing life into their cold, unfeeling circuits.

OK, perhaps we’re still a way off developing emotional droids capable of grasping the exquisite agony of human existence, but by creating a new artificial tactile system, the developers hope to usher in a new generation of autonomous robotics.

Presenting their work at the recent IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Stockholm, lead researchers Johannes Kuehn and Sami Haddadin explained how “pain is a system that protects us,” enabling us to identify and learn from harmful stimuli. Similarly, “a robot needs to be able to detect and classify unforeseen physical states and disturbances, rate the potential damage they may cause to it, and initiate appropriate countermeasures.”

In an attempt to achieve this, they have created a “nervous robot-tissue model that is inspired by the human skin structure.” Essentially, this amounts to a mechanical “fingertip,” containing a network of electrical sensors that mirror the neural pathways in the human finger.

As seen in the video below, this allows the robot to react to “painful” external stimuli. For instance, when experiencing a light pain, the robotic arm recoils slightly, while moderate pain produces a more pronounced response.



This particular robot has been programmed to become completely passive when faced with extreme pain, as experiencing such a heavy blow is likely to result in mechanical damage, so the developers decided to deactivate all movement under such conditions in order to avoid further damage.

Exactly what this new development means for robotkind in the long term remains to be seen, although life as a machine could be about to get a lot less comfortable.




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