The gentle touch of a robot

This is old news. A year ago the National Geographic reported that “researchers have devised a ‘nanosheet’ that can be wrapped around any surface—such as that of a surgical instrument or a robotic hand—to mimic the sensitivity of touch.”

This is huge news, yet it has fallen under the radar as most science news does these days.

Another human sense has entered the domain of computers. Sight and sound have been part of computers almost from day one. There is some argument if chemical analysis of a sample of anything can truly mimic smell or taste. I think that with clever software similar to an expert system, a computer could tell the difference between fresh baked bread and apple pie. But we are not there just yet.

The ability to “feel”, to mimic the sense of touch with artificial skin has up to now eluded scientists. Sure, robotic arms have had sensors that will let them know when resistance is building between two pincers, but that is not touch. This nanosheet stuff will allow delicate touch. Imagine the applications! Prosthetic hands will be able to untie a knotted shoelace, pet a dog, turn single page of a novel and wipe the tears away from the face of a crying child.

I realize that sensitivity is not the only thing touch tells us. But if we can achieve a gentle touch, can discerning hot and cold or wet and dry be that difficult?

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