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SYFY WIRE Artificial Intelligence

Star Wars-inspired synthetic skin feels texture, temp & even pain, just like Luke’s bionic hand

By Benjamin Bullard
Luke and Darth Vader face off in The Empire Strikes Back

Synthetic skin that can mimic humans' sense of touch has been a sci-fi dream seemingly forever. But new developments on one super-sensitive version of fake flesh are bringing science closer than ever before to recreating the famous scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke’s new prosthetic hand recoils in pain from the pinprick test.

When SYFY WIRE reported last year on ACES — short for Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin — the research team at the National University of Singapore already was confident that the AI powering its robo-skin prototype could process neural information 1,000 times faster than the human body can. Now, in a recent Reuters report, the team has shared how all that artificial brain power can translate to getting the real-world feels.

Packed with 100 sensors within a single square centimeter, it turns out that ACES can even accomplish something human skin can’t: Thanks to its AI-driven "nervous system," it can sense texture from a single point of contact, rather than needing to swipe across a surface (say, a scratchy piece of sandpaper) in order to recognize whether an object’s smooth or rough.

“[H]umans need to slide to feel texture,” team leader Benjamin Tee told Reuters, “but in this case the skin, with just a single touch, is able to detect textures of different roughness.” That allows ACES to distinguish between up to 30 different texture types with only a tap, and can even enable whatever dexterous digit it’s attached to to “read” braille with 90 percent accuracy.

Like Luke’s bionic hand (and the integumentary envelope that covers it), one of ACES' biggest projected uses is to serve as a replacement for what its future human users may have lost. The goal, researchers told Reuters, is to add a sense of tactile feeling — including distinguishing between objects, texture, temperature, and degrees of pain — to people who use prosthetic limbs.

“When you lose your sense of touch, you essentially become numb ... and prosthetic users face that problem,” said Tee. “So by recreating an artificial version of the skin, for their prosthetic devices, they can hold a hand and feel the warmth and feel that it is soft, [and] how hard are they holding the hand.”

Unlike its counterpart in the galaxy far, far away, the handy technology is still confined to the lab, at least for now. But Tee credited Star Wars’ lifelike replacement for Luke’s lightsaber-lopped limb with inspiring the team to develop ACES in the first place. The medical community already is showing “tremendous interest” in its potential, according to the report, and the team is even working on a separate skin prototype that can repair itself if “injured” by a tear. It’s too bad Luke had to sacrifice his hand to avoid an unspeakable family truth — but at least he left us with an idea that real-life scientists are closer than ever to grasping.