Can a robot read braille?

18th February 2024
Paige West

University of Cambridge researchers have unveiled a robotic sensor equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, setting a new benchmark in the field of tactile technology.

This robotic sensor is designed to read braille text at speeds approximately double those of the average human reader, achieving an impressive rate of 315 words per minute with nearly 90% accuracy. The findings of this research have been detailed in the esteemed journal, IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

While the primary objective behind the development of the robot braille reader was not to create assistive technology, its implications for the future of robotics and prosthetics are profound. The high sensitivity required to read braille positions this technology as an exemplary model in advancing robot hands or prosthetics that mimic the extraordinary sensitivity found in human fingertips.

Human fingertips possess an incredible level of sensitivity, enabling us to discern minute textural differences and regulate the force applied during physical interactions. This natural sensitivity presents a significant challenge in robotics, where replicating the nuanced touch of the human hand, particularly in an energy-efficient manner, remains a considerable engineering hurdle.

At the heart of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, Professor Fumiya Iida's lab is pioneering solutions to this challenge, striving to endow robotic devices with human-like dexterity and sensitivity. Parth Potdar, an undergraduate at Pembroke College and the leading author of the study, notes the crucial balance between softness and sensorial data in robotics. Achieving this balance is particularly challenging when interacting with flexible or deformable surfaces, such as braille.

“The softness of human fingertips is one of the reasons we’re able to grip things with the right amount of pressure,” said Parth Potdar from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering and an undergraduate at Pembroke College, the paper’s first author. “For robotics, softness is a useful characteristic, but you also need lots of sensor information, and it’s tricky to have both at once, especially when dealing with flexible or deformable surfaces.”

The Cambridge research team has leveraged an off-the-shelf sensor to construct a robotic braille reader that more closely mirrors human reading patterns, moving beyond the limitations of existing robotic readers that process braille in a static, letter-by-letter manner. This innovative approach enables continuous, fluid reading of braille text, much like how a human would read.

“There are existing robotic braille readers, but they only read one letter at a time, which is not how humans read,” said co-author David Hardman, also from the Department of Engineering. “Existing robotic braille readers work in a static way: they touch one letter pattern, read it, pull up from the surface, move over, lower onto the next letter pattern, and so on. We want something that’s more realistic and far more efficient.”

The robotic braille reader's ability to interpret braille at such a high speed and with commendable accuracy is a testament to the effectiveness of the machine learning algorithms and the overall design approach. This achievement not only showcases the potential for robotic systems to exceed human capabilities in specific tasks but also opens up new avenues for tactile sensing technology across various applications, from surface texture detection to robotic manipulation.

Looking ahead, the research team is exploring opportunities to scale this technology for integration into humanoid hands or synthetic skin, promising significant advancements in robotics and prosthetics. This project, supported in part by the Samsung Global Research Outreach Program, represents a significant leap forward in our understanding and development of sensitive robotic systems, with potential impacts that extend far beyond the realm of braille reading.

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