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Researchers Are Designing A Robot That Feels Pain

robot touch Different people have completely different opinions about robots.

Those in manufacturing may see robots as helpful tools that complete tasks most humans would find too menial to do day in and day out. Those who like the Terminator films may see robots as unstoppable forces that are to be feared rather than loved. Those in the middle may be plain indifferent.

Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, what would you think about robots that could feel pain?

Chances are, even those who are most familiar with robotics may be uncomfortable at the thought of robots that can feel, well, anything. And yet, according to IEEE Spectrum, researchers at Leibniz University of Hannover are developing an “artificial robot nervous system to teach robots how to feel pain.” Why in the world would anyone want to do that?

Before you gather your pitchforks and prepare for the fight against sentient robots, consider the reason that researchers are pursuing this technology: they want robots to be able to feel pain so that they can respond in order to avoid damage to their internal moving parts. Researchers also hope that this technology could enable robots to work more safely alongside humans, as well. A robot that ‘feels’ pain would be less susceptible to damage and also less likely to cause accidents because it doesn’t know it’s hurt.

When you think about it, this is similar in aim to other systems used in everyday machines to prevent serious damage. Your KitchenAid mixer can’t feel, but it does have a plastic gear in it (rather than a metal one) driving the paddle so that the gear breaks long before the whole motor goes south. Putting in a simple fail-safe like that becomes more difficult with more complex machinery–like robots working in a factory–so researchers and engineers have needed to pursue new ways to avoid serious damage as robots grow more sophisticated.

As for their progress? There’s still work to be done. IEEE Spectrum notes that this research is “just the first step towards a pain-based reflex controller for robots,” and there’s a lot to be done before such systems become totally viable. Nonetheless, even though “robots that feel pain” may sound like a scary phrase, it could be another step closer towards a world where robots and human can work peacefully–and safely–next to one another.

Photo credit: Leibniz University of Hannover via IEEE Spectrum

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