Commercially available robotic and prosthetic hands are increasingly sophisticated, but they are still unable to restore the sense of touch to the wearer. A paper just published in Science Robotics titled “A hierarchical sensorimotor control framework for human-in-the-loop robotic hands” presents, on this issue, an innovative approach: depending on the context and the type of application considered, control of the artificial limb occurs at different degrees of sharing between human and machine.

“Human interaction with the world,” explained Lucia Seminara, first author of the paper and professor at the University of Genoa in the Department of Naval, Electrical, Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering, “is crucially based on touch. Commercially available robotic and prosthetic hands are equipped with increasingly sophisticated joints but typically lack “haptic feedback,” despite the wide variety of sensors that can be integrated on the artificial hand like an electronic skin. This means that the current challenge is to effectively interface humans with these touch-enabled artificial limbs. To address this challenge, we take inspiration from the hierarchical principles of human sensorimotor control to propose a conceptual framework in which control of the artificial limb is shared between the machine and the human, with the degree of sharing depending on the context and the type of application being considered.”

“This conceptual framework,” he added, “makes it possible to clearly identify lines of research that could lead to the development of artificial hands with a sense of touch that are able to converse effectively with the human being. The shared control paradigm can be used in a variety of applications. At one extreme are prosthetic-type contexts, where the human being must be able to have complete control of the artificial limb, except in those situations where the artificial limb could act autonomously by mimicking reflexes managed by the autonomic nervous system in humans. At the other extreme is autonomous robotics, in which the robot has its own autonomy and the interaction between the two autonomous agents (human-robot) is limited to synchronization steps.”

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