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Scientists are building a 3D-printed robot hand with a humanlike sense of touch

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Robots are getting better, but in order for them to live up to their potential they need the kind of dexterity humans have with their hands. This project aims to help.

A lot of robotics labs are focused on building entire robotic bodies, not just comprising a number of different body parts, but also a range of comprehensive senses.

A laboratory at the U.K.’s University of Bristol is thinking a bit smaller than that — although their macro goal is as big as anything currently happening in the robotics world.

Led by Dr. Nathan Lepora, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory is currently at the start of a five-year research project to build a 3D-printed robotic hand with a realistic sense of touch. According to Lepora, after five years they hope to have a robot hand that is capable of doing everything our own hands can do: From dexterous movement to touch-based perception.

“If a robot has human abilities in terms of interacting with the world, it can take on any of the disciplines that right now require human manual labor,” Lepora told Digital Trends. “That could be anything from caregiving, such as handling patients in hospitals or nursing homes, to manufacturing lines, where people are still doing a lot of the assembly work. You could even bring about that long-term dream of the home robot that follows around after you, tidying up. There’s a whole spectrum of different use-cases we could explore if robots had the dexterity and manual abilities to do them.”

The research is being sponsored to the tune of $1.25 million and draws on experts from fields like neuroscience and psychology, as well as engineering.

Already, the team has built creations like TacTip, an open-source 3D-printed fingertip which won Harvard University’s International Soft Robotics Competition and is currently on display at London’s Science Museum. TacTip is made up of a webcam that is mounted in a 3D-printed soft fingertip which tracks internal pins, designed to act like the touch receptors in human fingertips.

“The other part of what we’re doing as a lab is to develop the algorithms that will make this possible,” Lepora continued. “To use a tactile 3D-printed hand, you need to have the software to interpret its sense of touch, and the data that comes off its tactile sensors, and then to use that information to control the hand.”

Half a decade to build a robotic version of the human hand, which evolved over many millions of years, is certainly a tall order — but Leopora sounds confident.

“What we wind up with may not look exactly like a human hand,” he said. “It may have three fingers, for instance. But it’ll be a 3D-printed robot hand with comparable abilities to our hands. In tandem with artificial intelligence algorithms, it will be able to interact with the world with comparable capabilities to our own. That’s the goal. Everything we do is about bringing that goal closer.”

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Health & Lifestyle

Researchers from Caltech have developed glowing contact lenses which could help battle blindness

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“We’ve developed a ‘phototherapeutic’ contact lens that may be useful in treating leading eye diseases driven by retinal oxygen starvation, such as diabetic retinopathy,” Caltech graduate student Colin Cook told Digital Trends. “The lenses are worn overnight and contain an embedded light source that shines an imperceptible light onto the retina that can help reduce its metabolic needs.”

Cook explained that the rod cells in our eyes — aka the photoreceptors which allow us to see at night — burn a lot of oxygen in the dark to boost their sensitivity so as to capture the limited number of photons. Unfortunately, the same thing happens while we sleep. For diabetics with compromised retinal vasculature, this means that the limited oxygen supply gets wastefully consumed, thereby leaving the rest of the retina to starve. The team’s smart contact lenses use light to trick the rods into reducing their oxygen consumption so that more is available for the rest of the retina. Pretty smart, right?

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“We know that within 10 to 15 years of diabetes onset, virtually all patients will develop some form of retinopathy,” Cook said. “Unfortunately, the current treatment options are rather invasive, including monthly eye injections of drug or sacrificing the peripheral retina with laser burns. Consequently, many patients avoid treatment altogether. Our lenses are being developed as a non-invasive, preventative therapy option for patients to slow progression of the disease and delay the need for invasive treatments.”

To take the project to the next stage, the Caltech researchers have partnered with Dr. Mark Humayun’s lab at the University of Southern California in order to evaluate efficacy. Working with the lab, they have demonstrated that the lenses can reduce rod photoreceptor activity by up to 90 percent. They have also shown that the lenses are imperceptible to the wearer, meaning that they don’t affect sleep.

“My mission is to get this technology into the hands of patients and so commercialization is a necessary step, and one I’ll pursue after graduation,” Cook said.

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Shocking the brain with electricity can prompt people to remember old dreams

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It’s a weird observation that people with epilepsy can occasionally remember old dreams during seizures. Scientists at France’s Toulouse University Hospital have now discovered that this same effect can be recreated by stimulating a particular part of the brain using electricity.

“Sudden and unexpected reminiscences of memories have been described after some direct electrical brain stimulations in epileptic patients since neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield’s [pioneering work] between the 1930s and 60s,” Jonathan Curot, a PhD student studying neuroscience at Toulouse University Hospital, told Digital Trends.

Over the past several decades, Curot said that different types of electrical brain stimulations, such as deep intracranial stimulation or electrocorticography, have sometimes been shown to recreate this effect in epileptic patients. However, because there was no way to reproduce these in a deterministic manner, very little has been known about the phenomenon — which is referred to as déjà-rêvé.

A bit like déjà-vu’s lesser-seen brother, déjà-rêvé involves recalling an experience which a person had while they were sleeping. This difference is summarized in their names: while déjà vu is French for “already seen,” déjà rêvé means “already dreamed.” The researchers in this new study found that this effect can be consistently recreated by stimulating the temporal lobe, a part of the brain associated with long-term memory, dreaming, and forming memories during sleep.

“We have demonstrated [this effect] in six epileptic patients,” Curot continued. “We have trapped EEG signals during déjà-rêvé and we were able to record patients during it and interview them just after these phenomena.”

According to Curot, the discovery is interesting because being able to explore the sudden unexpected reminiscences of dreams without environmental cues can help us better understand the brain. It could also have potential therapeutic application when treating people with neurological diseases involving memory disorders.

“We are [now] studying neuronal activity changes after electrical brain stimulations,” he said. “We use new intracranial microelectrodes to explore the effect of electrical stimulation to better understand how they modulate neuronal activity.”

A paper describing the work, titled “Déjà-rêvé: Prior dreams induced by direct electrical brain stimulation,” was recently published in the journal Brain Stimulation.

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A pioneering stem cell treatment restores eyesight in nearly blind patients

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A pair of patients with severe vision loss have had their sight restored, courtesy of a pioneering trial using stem cells to regrow crucial tissues in the eye. The first-of-its-kind procedure was carried out on a man in his 80s and woman in her 60s, conducted at the U.K.’s Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. Both patients suffered from visual impairments as the result of a vision disorder called age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Prior to the operation, both patients were unable to read under any conditions but afterward, they were able to read 60 to 80 words per minute using regular reading glasses. The operation was carried out one year ago, and both have been closely monitored since then.

The trial involved growing a replacement layer of cells called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). These are used for supporting the retina cells whose job is to capture light for vision. Loss of vision is caused by the death of the light-sensing retinal cells at the back of the eye, referred to as the macular.

This growth of replacement RPE cells was carried out using human embryonic stem cells, undifferentiated cells which can be prompted to transform into specialized cells, depending on requirements. In this work, the stem cell-based RPE cells were grown on a plastic scaffold, which re-creates the eye’s shapes and structure, before being transplanted into the back of each patient’s eye.

In the past, similar stem cell breakthroughs have been used for everything from giving people with paralysis their sense of touch back to providing a possible cure for Type 1 diabetes.

While this latest vision-related stem cell treatment is very much a trial, the researchers involved hope that this could lead to an “off the shelf” solution based on this study to be available to patients in the future. To reach this point, it will be necessary to carry out other, larger scale clinical trials to further prove the efficacy of the treatment.

A paper describing the work, “Phase 1 clinical study of an embryonic stem cell-derived retinal pigment epithelium patch in age-related macular degeneration,” was recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

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