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It looks like science fiction is about to become science fact. The more we let robots into our lives - be it at work or even in very personal contexts such as assistive care - the more important it becomes for them to treat us with sensitivity. Thanks to an artificial skin developed by Prof. Gordon Cheng and his team at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), robots could soon be able to actually feel their environment. This synthetic skin is composed of hexagonal cells the size of two-euro coins, each equipped with a microprocessor and sensors, capable of detecting and measuring not only the pressure of whatever they touch, but also the acceleration, proximity and temperature. This is said to make robots much more sensitive to the world around them, enabling them to perceive their environment in far greater detail. Not only does this help them move with greater certainty, but it is also set to greatly benefit direct, safe interaction with humans.

In the past, the biggest obstacle to developing an artificial skin has been the lack of adequate computing capacity. To put things into perspective, human skin has about five million receptors. However, evaluating the data of just a few hundred sensors was already pushing previous systems to their limits. To solve this problem, Cheng's team opted for a neuroengineering approach that does not permanently monitor skin cells, but instead uses what is known as an event-based system. This means that the individual cells only pass on information from their sensors if they detect changes to the measured values. This reduces the previously problematic computing workload by up to 90 percent. Incidentally, the human nervous system works in quite a similar way. For example, we usually only feel a hat the moment we put it on. However, since there is no need to be constantly aware of it, we soon forget about it and only remember it's there when it's suddenly blown off our head. This allows our nervous system to focus more on other new stimuli that the body - and soon also the robot - has to respond to.

Technical University of Munich (80333 Munich, Germany)