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Artificial Skin on Robot Prosthetics Lets Amputees Have a Sense of Touch, Feel Pain Again, Study Shows

Human Skin on Human Hand.HNDPTESBC/Pixabay

Most conventional prosthetics that are meant to replace lost limbs only function as either a placeholder or to perform super simple tasks. According to a new study, however, a functional artificial skin could change that. When paired with more advanced robotic prosthetics, these electronic skins can bring back an amputee’s sense of touch and pain.

Publishing their study in the journal Science Robotics, researchers at Johns Hopkins University describe how the artificial skin is able to return some of the sensations that an amputee might have lost. Calling it an electronic dermis (e-dermis), it’s basically placed over a robotic limb. It will then transmit signals to the brain of the wearer, which will allow them to regain a sense of touch.

“In a pain detection task (PDT), we show the ability of the prosthesis and amputee to differentiate nonpainful or painful tactile stimuli using sensory feedback and a pain reflex feedback control system. In this work, an amputee can use perceptions of touch and pain to discriminate object curvature, including sharpness. This work demonstrates possibilities for creating a more natural sensation spanning a range of tactile stimuli for prosthetic hands,” the study’s Abstract reads.

The researchers based their new invention on real human skin as well, Futurism reports. They focused on two particular sensations that are normally felt by natural skin: curvature and sharpness. If a person can distinguish if an object is curved or sharp, their sense of touch is functioning properly. This was how the researchers knew that their e-dermis was working.

On a slightly worrying note, the researchers also pointed out in a press release that the e-dermis could allow robots to feel sensations one day. Fans of the “Terminator” franchise might remember how Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-1000 character mentioned that it could feel pain. It was equipped with realistic artificial skin that allowed it to masquerade as a real human, which is not an encouraging parallel.

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