Experts within a whisker of designing smarter robots

Robots of the future could have fingertips as sensitive as those of people, thanks to research by the University of Sheffield into the way brains interpret senses.

Researchers at the University, along with experts at the University of Edinburgh, connected artificial mouse whiskers to a robotic brain to better understand how the brain processes information relayed by our sense of touch.

The study could help develop robots with touch sensors as sensitive as fingertips – which could be useful for prosthetic limbs or for carrying out intricate work in dangerous environments, such as bomb disposal.

The scientists found that when objects were brushed against the whiskers, the robot brain learned how to interpret the whisker movement according to its direction, mimicking the function of how a real brain understands the sensations of touch.

Researchers were able to build profiles of whisker movements and their corresponding brain functions to build a clearer picture of how the brain learns about touch, which will be helpful for robot design.

The study adds evidence to support the theory that the brain learns to understand signals from the senses through experience, and suggests that interpreting touch is not simply instinctive.

Scientists at both Universities now hope to expand on the findings by investigating how the brain interprets the shapes of objects with which it comes into contact.

Professor Tony Prescott from the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield, said: "The next generation of robots will learn from experience just as we do. This study is helping us to understand how the brain learns, without a teacher, to extract useful information from sensory signals."

Dr James Bednar, of the University of Edinburgh´s School of Informatics, who also took part in the research, said: "Our findings increase our understanding of how the brain learns how to process tactile information. We hope these results will help the design of robots with senses even more finely tuned than our own."

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