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Star Wars-inspired AI skin passes touch tests

Joseph Campbell, August 4, 2020 6:45PM Reuters

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Dr Benjamin Tee demonstrates how his device can detect the texture of a soft stress ball. Picture: Reuters media_cameraDr Benjamin Tee demonstrates how his device can detect the texture of a soft stress ball. Picture: Reuters

technology

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Inspired by Star Wars, scientists have developed “electronic skin” capable of recreating a sense of touch.

The innovation* could one day allow people with prosthetic* limbs to detect objects, as well as feel texture, or even temperature and pain.

The skin, which is called ACES, or Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin, is made up of 100 small sensors and is about 1 sq cm in size.

The researchers at the National University of Singapore who developed it say it can process information faster than the human nervous system, is able to recognise 20 to 30 different textures and can read braille* letters with more than 90 per cent accuracy.

“So humans need to slide to feel texture, but in this case the skin, with just a single touch, is able to detect textures of different roughness,” said research team leader Benjamin Tee, adding that AI algorithms* let the device learn quickly.

A demonstration showed the device could detect that a squishy stress ball was soft, and determine that a solid plastic ball was hard.

“When you lose your sense of touch, you essentially become numb … and prosthetic users face that problem,” Dr Tee said.

“So by recreating an artificial version of the skin, for their prosthetic devices, they can hold a hand and feel the warmth and feel that it is soft, how hard are they holding the hand,” he said.

Dr Tee said the concept was inspired by a scene from the “Star Wars” movie trilogy in which the character Luke Skywalker loses his right hand and it is replaced by a robotic one, seemingly able to experience touch sensations again.

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, showing his robotic hand. Picture: Lucasfilm Ltd media_cameraMark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, showing his robotic hand. Picture: Lucasfilm Ltd

The technology is still in the experimental stage, but Dr Tee said there had been “tremendous interest”, especially from the medical community.

Similar patents* developed by his team include a transparent skin that can repair itself when torn and a light-emitting* material for wearable electronic devices.

GLOSSARY

  • innovation: new method, idea or invention
  • prosthetic: artificial body part
  • Braille: form of written language made up of patterns of raised dots, for people with low vision
  • algorithms: rules to be followed in doing a calculation, especially by a computer
  • emitting: sending something out, such as light or sound
  • patents: legal rights to make and sell an idea or invention

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What things could this invention one day help people with prosthetic limbs feel?
  2. What is the skin invention called?
  3. How accurately can it read braille?
  4. What did the ball demonstration show?
  5. What inspired this invention?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Soft Touch
Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has lost their sense of touch in their hands, or has prosthetic hands or feet that can’t feel anything. Make a list of the things you would miss feeling the sensation of and if this new technology would help solve those feelings.

A template for recording your answers. media_cameraA template for recording your answers.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and creative thinking

2. Extension
Can you think of some other uses for this electronic skin technology? Why do you think the medical community is especially interested in this new technology?

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and Creative thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
Adjectives
An adjective is a describing word. They are often found describing a noun. To start with look at the words before the nouns.

Search for all the adjectives you can find in the article

Did you find any repeat adjectives or are they all different?

Extension:

Pick three of your favourite adjectives from the text and put them in your own sentences to show other ways to use them.

Have you used any in your writing?

HAVE YOUR SAY: What fictional technology would you like to make in real life?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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