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British scientists have introduced a robot that reads Braille faster than a human

A team of engineers at the University of Cambridge has developed a highly sensitive robotic sensor capable of reading Braille at over 300 words per minute - more than double typical human speeds. The technology demonstrates how robotics continues pushing boundaries in replicating nuanced human perception and manipulation capabilities.


Mimicking the Gentle Touch of Human Hands

A key challenge for robotics is recreating the exceptional tactile sensitivity of human fingers and hands. This lets us dexterously handle fragile items like eggs without breaking them or discern intricate textures and patterns. Fingertips relay detailed data about objects to inform smarter manipulation.

Engineering robotic hands or prosthetics with comparable capabilities requires compact, energy-efficient sensors providing similarly dense feedback. It has proven an extremely difficult task thus far.


Tests Reading Speed and Precision of Robotic Sensor

However, Braille reading presents the perfect test. Detecting the subtle dot patterns by touch calls for precision comparable to human levels. To advance touch sensor research, a team led by Professor Fumiya Iida at Cambridge’s Department of Engineering therefore focused on enhancing a robotic platform’s Braille reading prowess.

They started with a ready-made tactile sensor embedding a camera within the fingertip. Combining camera input and sensor data better mimics how human mechanoreceptors work across skin layers. Still, quickly and reliably parsing Braille patterns pushed the limits of standard computer vision approaches.


Sophisticated Machine Learning Algorithms Prove Key

The breakthrough came by training machine learning algorithms to handle intentionally blurred images, teaching robust Braille letter recognition amidst noise. Further models then classified characters in real-time during high-speed reading attempts.

Remarkably, the updated system achieved over 87% accuracy while sliding across Braille text at 315 words per minute - over twice typical human pace. It also captured the continuous movements people use when reading versus slowly scanning single letters sequentially.


Major Milestone Towards More Capable Robotic Hands

Researchers were stunned by the results, noting performance exceeded expectations despite using artificially degraded data. The work represents a major milestone in enabling robotic hands to match delicate human touch.

Efforts now turn to miniaturizing the sensors and expanding capabilities. Longer-term, the researchers envision integrating their Braille breakthroughs into dexterous robotic skin and prosthetics. This could replicate smooth, nimble human movements for increasingly responsive and intelligent machines.

So while not aimed at assistive applications today, the high-speed Braille reading solutions highlight how robotics continues adopting human design principles. It hints at smarter, more intuitive interactions between future generations of machines and people in homes, offices, and beyond.

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