Robots Can Now Feel Pain, Thanks to German Scientists

Have you ever looked at the electronics in your life and thought “I wish I could hurt you”? Well soon, you can! Researchers from the Leibniz University of Hannover are working on a way to get machines to feel pain. Granted, their goal isn’t sadism, but rather preservation. They hope that by responding to the stimuli of pain, machines will get themselves out of harm’s way before they are damaged or broken.

As human beings, pain allows us to do things like take our hands away from a naked flame or not chew our own hands off. Johannes Keuhn and Professor Sami Haddadin are hoping that pain in machines will provide them with similar benefits. They have created a “nervous robot-tissue model that is inspired by the human skin structure”. This model has been demonstrated at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA). Also can I just say how perfect it is that a conference in which pain is being demonstrated is called “IEEE”?

The tissue – which they currently have embedded in a robot arm – is capable of classifying pain as light, moderate and severe. Keuhn and Haddadin hope that this ability to feel varying levels of pain will allow machines to protect themselves and the humans around them. As they explain in the ICRA paper:

“In the [light] pain class, such contacts occur that may harm the robot or prevent it from performing the task. The robot “feels” uncomfortable and shall smoothly retract until the contact even is over and return thereafter. Strong collisions are covered in the [moderate] pain class. The robot “feels” moderate pain, shall quickly retract, and more distant until the contact event is over. Then, it may move back. The [severe] pain class covers all contacts in which the robot may be damaged and thus needs some sort of “help”. In order to prevent making the damage worse, the robot switches to gravity compensation with additional damping for dissipation, improving the safety of the robot and the environment by its strictly passive behaviour”

The reason “feels” is written with air-quotes is that this robot arm does not actually experience pain the way living beings do. So those worried about inflicting suffering on our machines can rest assured that this robot is not actually hurt. Rather, it recognises pain stimuli in a more detached, intellectual sense. It understands when something is painful and reacts accordingly, as opposed to actually suffering. Good for those of us worried about any moral implications about inflicting pain on non-living entities. Good for those of worried that causing pain to the machines will lead to the violent uprising. Not good for those of us who want to punch our boiler in the face for depressurizing yet again.