Doctors Discuss the Development of Robotic Hands (Part 1)

Humans manipulate the objects we use on a daily basis often without thinking. Grabbing, twisting, chopping, lifting, turning and moving objects is an almost unconscious process. And, because our hands are incredibly dexterous, humans have constructed the world around the natural use of our hands: from chopsticks and violins to cellphones and keyboards – our tools and objects have been designed to be operated by our fingers, palms and hands.

However, scientists, engineers and inventors have not been able to replicate the use of the human hand in existing robots. In fact, currently most of the widely used robotic hand designs – a type called a “gripper” – is not much different than those imagined in 1960s TV. These robotic hands are typically simply made of two stiff metal fingers that can pinch an object between them.

The Difficulty in Developing Robotic Hands

In controlled environments – such as a robotic assembly line – grippers perform just fine. This is because every time the robot must manipulate a specific part, it is the same size part, in the same place, at the same orientation. The robotic hand only needs to be programmed to repeat the same single task over and over.

However, in real life, hands manipulate thousand if not millions of objects in a lifetime. Even the simple task of washing and drying dishes involves adjusting the “grip” to dozens of different size and shape objects – made of varying materials, from fragile glass to slippery steel.

For a robot to identify and understand how to manipulate such a vast array of objects would be complete chaos.

In other words, science can currently build manipulators for a specific object in a defined situation. But when it comes to versatility, robotic engineering has not even come close to approximating the human hand and fingers.

Doctors & Scientists Approach to Robotic Hands

In order for a robotic hand to manipulate the vast number of unique shapes, sizes, and materials of human’s objects, the ideal robotic appendage would have to be something that resembles the human hand.  Precise and delicate enough to handle plastic wrap – and strong enough to remove a jar lid or change a tire.

Human hands have rigid bones – but are also able to bend and flex as we handle objects. At a minimum a robot’s hands need to do the same – to “cage” objects inside its grasp, and be able to move them around (perhaps “raking” them like an infant).

But engineering that amount of versatility has still escaped scientists. Not to mention the AI (artificial intelligence) or machine learning that would be needed to recognize which type of grip, grasp or manipulation was appropriate for each different type of item or material.

Current Robotic Hand Designs

Currently, robotic designers are not yet turning to accurate replicas of the human hand. , looking toward squishy materials and better computational tools like machine learning to control them.

Instead of robotic hands that resemble human hands, researchers are primarily experimenting with soft, flexible hands made of silicone. These “squishy” robotic hands offer many advantages over previous generations of hard metal gripper. But while the “rubbery” robotic fingers are superior to metal at picking up diverse objects, it still struggles with the fine motor skills required for more refined tasks.

For example, even a simple task like threading a needle involves not just holding the thread and the needle, but also “seeing” or feeling the needle’s eye, avoiding the edges, and sliding the thread through it. So, robotic engineers are also attempting to create sensors that can tell robotic hands about the properties of the objects they touch.

For a robotic hand to even approximate the human hand’s ability, it necessarily must be firm as well as flexible; and be able to perceive cold, heat and textures. A robotic hand also needs to be precise and gentle enough to manipulate fragile items – but strong enough to perform more difficult tasks and durable enough to last over thousands of diverse uses.

And, in addition to meeting all of these criteria, robotic hands must also be affordable and cost effective.

Artificial Intelligence & Robotic Hands

Human fingertips have thousands of individual touch receptors contained in the skin. Doctors and robotic scientists have not been able to successfully develop an approximation of these sensors yet – let alone figure out a way for the robot to process all of this information once they have it.

With advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, methods that enable robots to utilize these massive amounts of sensory data are emerging – but are still in their infancy. Building a robot that can utilize “hands” quickly, appropriately, safely and seamlessly — especially in complex and novel situations — is still a ways off.

Detroit Area Hand Doctor

Despite the slow and painstaking progress that robotic scientists are making in the field of robot hand-control systems, the “autonomous manipulation” that humans take for granted is still many years away.

This should give everyone pause to appreciate and protect our own amazing hands and fingers. If you are suffering from any injury or pain in your fingers, wrist, elbow or arm, contact board certified Detroit area hand surgeon Doctor Rehman for a comprehensive evaluation and consultation. As with any medical conditions, early detection, awareness, and a prevention or treatment plan is the most effective way to combat hand injury – and ensure a complete and rapid recovery.

Doctor Rehman will assess your individual situation, and prescribe the treatments that are best for your condition.

Top Detroit Area Hand Doctor: 248.335.2638