Mind / Iron
by Bryan Bergeron, Editor ;
By now, I expect that you’re familiar with the android David in the sci-fi
film Prometheus. David exemplifies near perfection — the ability to speak and
understand language, an apparently perfect humanoid body, the ability to
effectively lie and deceive, and a sense of self-preservation. What the film failed
to reveal, however, was whether David was ticklish.
I focus on this seemingly insignificant ability because it’s something that
most humans demonstrate and because it seems more easily achieved than,
say, the ability to deceive others. Think about it — what could be so difficult?
You’d need a sensor or two, and the ability to determine if a body part was
touching or being touched by someone or something else.
I started an experiment with a 5DOF robot arm, a few pressure sensors,
and an Arduino, and quickly discovered that determining who or what is doing
the touching is non-trivial.
For example, to determine whether a pressure sensor response is due to
movement of the arm or of something external touching the arm, you have to
keep a history of the arm movement. If the arm has been sitting idle for 20
seconds, then you can probably conclude that the pressure sensor reacted to
an external force. If the arm was moving, then it could have been either arm
or external movement, or both. So, you’d need an optical or IR sensor to
determine if someone or something was near.
There’s no $39 “Tickle Me Elmo” solution to creating a realistically ticklish
android or black box robot. The skin sensors would need to distinguish a light
soft touch from, say, a punch or scratch. Then, there’s the higher-level
processing required to determine whether the soft touch should result in a
tickle response, pulling away in a defensive posture, or a slap in the face.
Local sensor processing isn’t enough. People often start laughing before
being tickled. That is, the anticipation is enough to evoke laughter. Not only
would you need to detect, say, a hand sneaking up, approaching your armpit
or other sensitive spot, but you’d have to analyze the facial expression of the
suspected tickler. A negative expression might suggest a mugger, and not
someone to be taken lightly.
As impressive as Watson is playing Jeopardy, I’d be more impressed if it
were ticklish. I think that the Touring Test will be passed by computers long
before the ‘ticklish test.’ A reasonable question is “So what?” As David said in
Prometheus, we humans are most comfortable around our own kind. An
android that can’t display the full range of human interactions — including
being ticklish (and, as an aside, being able to tickle others) — would hardly pass
From a practical perspective, future servant robots that attend to the aging
and sick will need a full range of human-like emotions in order to bond with
their patients and owners. As far as my experiments go, I’ve given up on the
Arduino as an experimental platform, simply because it doesn’t have the
processing power. Instead, I’m working with the Parallax Propeller and the
Raspberry Pi — both powerful, inexpensive microcontrollers that may have
enough speed and memory to monitor multiple sensors and at least guess
about the context. Time will tell.
If you’ve worked in this area, please consider sharing your experience with
your fellow readers. SV
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