Page last updated at 01:12 GMT, Monday, 26 October 2009

'Whiskers' may help robots touch

A humanoid robot, HRP-4C, developed by Japan"s Advanced Industrial Science and Technology
Robots of the future could have a sense of touch like humans

Robots of the future could have fingertips as sensitive as those of people, new research suggests.

Researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Sheffield have been examining the way our brains interpret our senses.

They connected artificial mouse whiskers to a robotic brain to see how the brain processes information relayed by sense of touch.

The research could lead to the creation of prosthetic limbs able to feel.

The scientists found that when objects were brushed against the whiskers, the robot brain learned how to interpret the whisker movement according to its direction, mimicking the function of how a real brain understands the sensations of touch.

Researchers were able to build profiles of whisker movements and their corresponding brain functions to create a clearer picture of how the brain learns about touch, which will be helpful for robot design.

The study adds evidence to support the theory that the brain learns to understand signals from the senses through experience, and suggests that interpreting touch is not simply instinctive.

The whisker movements of mice have helped scientists

Scientists hope to expand on the findings by investigating how the brain interprets the shapes of objects with which the body comes into contact.

The study, funded by the European Union, was presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Chicago.

Dr James Bednar, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Informatics, who took part in the research, said: "Our findings increase our understanding of how the brain learns how to process tactile information. We hope these results will help the design of robots with senses even more finely-tuned than our own."

Professor Tony Prescott, of the University of Sheffield's Department of Psychology, said: "The next generation of robots will learn from experience just as we do. This study is helping us to understand how the brain learns, without a teacher, to extract useful information from sensory signals."

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