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Science Nation: Giving Robots and Prostheses the Human Touch

4 minutes

(Describer) In an animation, a globe is filled with water. Title: Science Nation. A woman and man work with robot arms, which each have a hand with three fingers with soft pads at the tips.

So we'll both start here.

(male narrator) The Biomechatronics Lab at UCLA is a touchy place. But no offense is taken here so long as your goal is pushing the world of robotics and prosthetics to be more sensational.

(female) Well, we're really interested in the sense of touch.

(narrator) That's lab director, mechanical engineer Veronica Santos. You can build a hand that looks and has similar motions as a human hand,

(Describer) One robot hand passes a ball to the other.

but you probably won't be able to control it with the dexterity of a human hand without a sense of touch.

(Describer) The fingers move around a palm in the middle.

(narrator) With support from the National Science Foundation, Santos and her team are constructing a language of touch that a computer and a human can both understand. They are quantifying this with mechanical touch sensors that meet objects of varied shapes, sizes, and textures.

(Describer) A fingertip is run over different shapes and movements are measured.

Using an array of instrumentation, they are able to translate that interaction into data a computer can understand.

(Describer) They watch a finger move.

For example, Miles, as you put your hand in there to stop it,

(Describer) Miles lets it touch his finger.

we'd be able to record the posture of the finger when it came in contact with you, and the general areas of the finger tip that were making contact, and how much pressure there was or how much the skin was deforming as you make contact. Those are the types of raw percepts you would give someone. With training, they would put it all together and say, "Hey, I think I'm touching something deformable or soft.

(Describer) They work again with the two robot hands passing the ball.

Yeah, and then Randy has time to grab, and then it'll come back.

(narrator) The training includes machine learning. The data is used to create a formula or algorithm that gives the computer the ability to identify common patterns between the items it has in its library of experience and something it has never felt before.

(Describer) One holds a teddy bear.

(female) We're interested in developing this idea of artificial haptic intelligence. Making haptic sensation useful for an arm amputee is a big challenge.

(Describer) Miles puts on his own prosthetic arm.

Prosthetic and robotic technology has far surpassed the ability of an amputee to control a limb or understand what the device is sensing. The bottleneck is melding the technology with the biology.

(Describer) A robot arm with five fingers moves.

(female) I think one of the challenges is understanding how much information can you flood someone with before they can't make use of it.

(Describer) She opens straps on an arm.

(narrator) Santos goes out of her way to understand what it's like to be an amputee. Even trying her, well, hand at a body powered prosthetic hook, like the one I wear.

(Describer) She puts her arm into it.

When I have it on, I realize how I have to rely on the other hand for every other dexterous thing. I actually, sometimes, have to cheat.

(narrator) As a young researcher, a professor told her not to go into upper limb prosthetics because it was a stagnant field. That was largely true until recently, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spurred research, and the worlds of robotics and prosthetics came together.

(Describer) A soldier fires.

(female) People have been trying to build robots that emulate humans, but there's now a way that we can actually directly impact someone's quality of life by building a robot that becomes part of someone's body.

(narrator) Dr. Santos says, in a perfect world, an amputee wearing a prosthetic arm would barely feel the difference between it and the real thing. It's a long-range goal she hopes to help solve, though not single-handedly.

(Describer) A globe turns by the title.

For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

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Research engineers and students in the University of California, Los Angeles, Biomechatronics Lab are designing artificial limbs to be more sensational, with the emphasis on sensation. With support from the National Science Foundation, the team, led by mechanical engineer Veronica J. Santos, is constructing a language of touch that both a computer and a human can understand. Part of the National Science Foundation Series “Science Nation.”

Media Details

Runtime: 4 minutes

Science Nation
Episode 1
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 2
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Episode 3
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Episode 4
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Episode 5
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Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Episode 9
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Episode 10
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