Researchers in Japan to Make Artificial Skin That Can Feel Pain

A team of Japanese researchers have developed artificial skin for robots that "feels" pain.
Christopher McFadden

A team of researchers in Japan are working on synthetic skin that could help robots empathize with human beings. This could help make robots become true companions rather than soulless machines. 


Researchers are working on "touchy-feely" robots of the future

A research team at Osaka University in Japan are working on synthetic skin that could one day help robots "feel" pain. This could help robots empathize with their human companions.

While true "touchy-feely" robots are a long way off at present, this research marks an important step closer to making them a reality. The tech works by embedding sensors in soft, artificial skin that can detect gentle touch and more "painful" sensations like being hit.

Reported in the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, robots equipped with this skin could potentially signal emotions. Called an artificial "pain nervous system" by Minoru Asada, a member of the research team, this small development could ultimately lead to robots experiencing pain like real people.

If successful, it is hoped that this would help robots understand emotional and physical pain like human beings. 

The Japanese team has already developed an unsettlingly realistic-looking robotic child's head that can change facial expressions in reaction to touch and pain signals from the synthetic skin. Called "Affetto", it has been shown to reliably pick up on a range of touch sensations.

This could open the door for better carer-robots of the future

According to neuroscientist Kingson Man of The University of Southern California, LA, this development could allow richer interaction between machines and the world in the future. The skin, being soft rather than rigid, should allow for the "possibility of engagement in versatile and truly intelligent ways,” Man explained.

Asada hopes that this development could open the door for robots to recognize pain in others. This would prove to be a vitally important skill for robots that are designed to help care for others, like the elderly. 

"But there is an important distinction between a robot that responds in a predictable way to a painful thump and a robot that’s capable of approximating an internal feeling, says Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist also at the University of Southern California. In a recent article, he and Man argue that such an artificial sense of feeling might arise if robots were programmed to experience something akin to a mental state such as pain" -

Robots with tactile sensors that are to detect touch and pain are “along the lines of having a robot, for example, that smiles when you talk to it,” Antonio Damasio says. “It’s a device for communication of the machine to a human.” While that’s an interesting development, “it’s not the same thing” as a robot designed to compute some sort of internal experience, he added.