Ouch! When Robots Feel Pain

In a move that sounds like a case of robot bullying to the extreme, researchers from Germany have developed a way for robots to feel pain. And as cruel, (and sad), as it sounds, they’re doing it for a purpose, to help robots save themselves.

Robots are impressive feats of technology and incredibly useful for a variety of tasks ranging from the unpleasant to the dangerous, and because robots don’t feel pain as humans do, we’ve put them into many positions that we’d rather not be in. That lack of pain means that a robot has not data to interpret like humans do, and that can mean that their reactions aren’t up to par when compared to their human counterparts.

This robot can feel:

It’s that pain that causes us to react to certain situation, creating a system of protection as we evade the source of the pain. Researchers from Leibniz University of Hannover are certain that with an ability to feel pain robots would be able to adapt and respond to avoid potential injury and damage to their expensive motors, gears, and assorted electronics.

To prove their point Johannes Kuehn and Professor Sami Haddadin, an expert in physical human-robot interaction and safety are developing an artificial robot nervous system. Their hope is that this nervous system will allow robots to feel pain and distinguish methods for how to handle the stimulus.

In their workshop paper presented at the 2016 ICRA in Stockholm Haddadin and Kuehn showed a robotic arm with a specialised nervous robotic tissue that was inspired by the structure of human skin. This created a starting point for deciding how much pain should be felt for each amount of given force. As in humans the neurons transmit pain information from the tissue in repetitive spikes whenever the force exerted exceeds a preset limit, the controller classifies the information as light, moderate, or severe pain, and then reacts accordingly. The robotic arm that Haddadin and Kuehn displayed was able to react to both pressure and temperature.

The researchers aim to create a workable nervous system for robots that work in dangerous conditions to keep them intact. Light pain classification that might harm or prevent the robot from finishing its task would cause the robot to remove itself until the event is finished, as would a moderate pain classification. A severe pain classification would cover all contact where the robot may be damaged and need some assistance, thus taking pre-prescribed precautions for its safety such as removal.

Attendees at the recent ICRA conference in Stockholm were amazed at the robots ability to react to the implied pain it sensed, but this is really just the first among many steps towards pain-based reflex control for robots. The world is seeing an ever increasing use of robots as they replace workers in difficult tasks, removing the danger for humans. But it will become increasingly expensive if those robots have to keep being replaced because they are being damaged during those dangerous tasks, providing researchers the incentive to continue their studies into artificial robot nervous systems.