German scientists are training robots to 'feel' pain

It could prevent them from getting damaged and needing costly repairs.

Pain is important. It triggers the appropriate response to prevent even greater injuries or even to save your life. A couple of German researchers think so too, so they're working on a way to make robots "feel" -- or, more accurately, to detect and respond to -- pain. That way, they can move away from anything that could damage them, thereby lengthening their lifespans and preventing the need for costly repairs.

Johannes Kuehn and Professor Sami Haddadin from the Leibniz University of Hannover presented their work at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Sweden last week. In the video below, you can see them demonstrating their "nervous robot-tissue model that is inspired by the human skin structure" on a robotic arm. The robotic nervous system classifies pain as light, moderate (such as strong collisions) or severe (anything that can damage the machine). Each type triggers an appropriate response, as they explained in their 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 event 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 behavior.

While the research could lead to more human-like robots than ever, it could also benefit other types of machines. The ability to feel pain could, for instance, help protect industrial machines used in factories.