Researchers create ‘mini brains’ to allow robots to feel pain

16 Oct 2020

Prof Nripan Mathews, Rohit Abraham John and Prof Arindam Basu. Image: NTU Singapore

This week in future tech, AI-enabled sensors built by researchers in Singapore could lead to robots that can self-heal and recognise pain.

Scientists from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have published a paper to Nature Communications documenting their system that allows for robots to have the artificial intelligence (AI) to recognise pain and to self-repair when damaged.

This is achieved using AI-enabled sensor nodes to process and respond to ‘pain’ arising from pressure exerted by a physical force. Combined with a self-healing ion gel material, the system also enables the robot to detect and repair damage without the need for human intervention.

Rather than relying on bulky systems typically needed to send sensor data to a large central processing unit, the new system connects various AI sensors to create ‘mini-brains’ distributed on the robot’s skin. First author of the study, Rohit Abraham John, said the system is similar to how human skin heals itself after being cut.

“The self-healing properties of these novel devices help the robotic system to repeatedly stitch itself together when ‘injured’ with a cut or scratch, even at room temperature,” he said.

“In our tests, our robot can ‘survive’ and respond to unintentional mechanical damage arising from minor injuries such as scratches and bumps, while continuing to work effectively. If such a system were used with robots in real world settings, it could contribute to savings in maintenance.”

Digital billboards hacked to trick self-driving cars

Wired has reported that researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev have found a way to trick systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot into slamming on the brakes without warning. Using internet-connected billboards, the researchers found that hackers could create a split-second ‘phantom’ image on a road that would be picked up by a car’s sensors, but not the driver.

Once seen, the sensors would trick the car’s safety mechanisms into stopping the car without warning.

“The attacker just shines an image of something on the road or injects a few frames into a digital billboard, and the car will apply the brakes or possibly swerve, and that’s dangerous,” said Yisroel Mirsky, a researcher for Ben Gurion University and Georgia Tech who worked on the research.

“The driver won’t even notice at all. So somebody’s car will just react, and they won’t understand why.”

While Tesla responded to the researchers to say that the system is “intended for use only with a fully attentive driver”, the Ben Gurion team said: “As we know, people use this feature as an autopilot and do not keep 100pc attention on the road while using it. Therefore, we must try to mitigate this threat to keep people safe, regardless of [Tesla’s] warnings.”

Vodacom Mozambique nears commercial Loon launch

Vodacom Mozambique CTO Pedro Rabacal recently confirmed with Mobile World Live that the network provider is in the final stages of preparing a commercial launch for Loon by the end of 2020.

Loon, a Google spin-off, has developed a system that uses high-altitude balloons to transmit broadband internet to remote regions of the world. Following its first commercial launch in Kenya in July, Rabacal said Loon will now cover approximately 100,000 sq km of Mozambique offering coverage to around 1m people.

This will offer a “step-improvement in coverage”, he said, and that the service will be expanded to 21m people by 2025. Trials have so far shown download speeds of between 10Mbps and 12Mbps which is “really a phenomenal speed to get” in the country’s remote regions.

Zipp Mobility approved for Somerset e-scooter trials

Irish e-scooter start-up Zipp Mobility has received approval for a 12-month trial in the town of Taunton in Somerset, UK. Somerset West and Taunton (SWT) Council received approval from the UK Department for Transport to operate the scheme which is scheduled to commence in late October.

Peter Pilkington, the executive member for climate at SWT Council, said: “SWT is in the process of approving a district-wide plan as part of its commitment to tackling climate change, and has already implemented several initiatives to help create a more sustainable future for everyone.”

In advance of the e-scooter trial scheme going live, SWT Council and Zipp Mobility will be holding a series of training and education days for members of the public. In addition to this, the council and Zipp will be engaging with local representatives and groups in order to ensure this trial is tailor-made for the area and has a positive impact on the community.

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic