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Researchers teaching robots to feel pain

The robot version of "pain" will work much like the biological version, teaching robots to avoid hazards.

Robots are useful for sending forth into situations that may be hazardous for humans, but their inability to feel pain can sometimes lead to them getting damaged unnecessarily. To help mitigate this (and not because they're wacky evil scientists who want to give robots a reason to hate humans), a pair of researchers in Germany is trying to develop a sort of robotic nervous system.

Johannes Kuehn and Sami Haddaddin of Leibniz University of Hanover, Germany presented their research last week at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm, Sweden.

"Pain is a system that protects us," Kuehn explained to IEEE. "When we evade from the source of pain, it helps us not get hurt."

They designed a pain reflex response for a BioTac fingertip sensor attached to a Kuka robotic arm based on human pain responses. They also modelled its artificial nervous tissue after human skin, able to feel degrees of pain, from light to severe.

When experiencing light pain, the robot arm smoothly retracts until it no longer feels pain, then returns to position. For moderate pain, the arm retracts more quickly, and may or may not return when the pain is over. For severe pain, which could mean the robot is already damaged, it goes into a passive mode to minimise the damage.