Robots of the future may have a more human touch, thanks to researchers at Cornell University.

In a paper published in the journal Science Robotics, robotics engineers outlined their invention, a soft robot hand, known as the "Gentle Bot," that is able to touch fragile items, but also to sense the shape and texture of the things it comes in contact with.

The soft-touch robot could lead to more human-like prosthetics. The soft-touch robot could lead to more human-like prosthetics. Soft robotic technology is already used in warehouses to handle food and similar products. But the hand developed at Cornell may have the potential to handle more delicate items. The technology, if developed further, could allow robots to directly interact with humans. It could also make for better prosthetics.

In the past, in order for a robotic hand to be able to sense what it was touching, the item would need to be made of a material that could conduct electricity. With the Gentle Bot, items just need to be able to reflect light.

Stretchy optical waveguides containing LEDs are built into the pneumatic fingers, allowing them to "sense" the surroundings. When the soft fingers that are mounted on a rigid palm flex, that movement affects how much light goes into the device. Those changes are measured by a light detector, or photodiode. The internal optical cords act like nerves.

To test the device, the team placed three tomatoes in front of it and directed it to pick out the ripest. Other tests included picking up a ripe tomato without crushing it and shaking a human hand. It was unable, however, to tell the difference between a real, unripe tomato and an acrylic one.

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