Our future robotic overlords will at least have a gentle touch.
Scientists at Cornell University developed a robotic hand that's made of soft silicone, and filled with "optical waveguides." These brightly-colored LED components are made up of optical fibers and photodetectors.
The hand, aka "Gentle Bot," was able to detect shape, texture and softness of a variety of objects, detecting curves at the micrometer level, still far, but not too far, from a human's nanometerlevel of touch. With these capabilities, the Gentle Bot is closer to a human hand in terms of sensitivity than most other robotic limbs to date.
Putting the Gentle Bot's touch to the test on a trio of tomatoes at varying stages of redness, they directed the hand to detect which one was the most ripe. The hand grazes its fingers across the tomatoes, then makes another painfully careful pass over each, pressing its index finger into the fruit before moving to the next. It then slides the most-ripe tomato out of the line.
Time will tell if the robots that can farm our food will go on to snag our best produce at the farmer's market—and with farming getting steadily more mechanized over the years, it's not unlikely.
Scientists ran Gentle Bot through a variety of other tests, including picking up a ripe tomato without crushing it, and shaking a human hand.
Along with other factors that typically trip up the world of soft robots, this bot's relatively simple fabrication and low cost could shape—oh, so gently shape—the world of prosthetic hands and limbs.
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