Scottish scientists have developed a tongue-like device to detect fake whiskey, The Guardian reported. The “robot tongue” could eventually be made portable and differentiate between different flavors of liquor. The tech raises questions about humanoid robots in our future.
According to The Guardian, the robotics team developed the “robot tongue” to help stop counterfeiting in the liquor industry. Each tongue is a slim glass slide containing three arrays. Each array, the article said, is composed of two million artificial taste buds. The taste buds are photoreactive, so when light shines on them—or light refracted in liquid, which is the important part—the taste buds can tell different light waves apart based on the consistency of the liquid. Science fiction has long predicted real-life technology, sometimes to eerie accuracy. This new invention has implications of robots developing a sense of taste, leaving us to wonder how close we are to creating robots that are just like us.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge
In 2015, the military’s Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held the finals for the DARPA Robotics Challenge to address the problem of disasters too big, sudden, or dangerous for humans to handle. According to its website, the DARPA Robotics Challenge did so “by promoting innovation in human-supervised robotic technology for disaster-response operations.” The DARPA website says the goal was “to develop human-supervised ground robots capable of executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments.” It featured some of the most ambitious robotics projects to date.
“The science fiction approach to humanoids presumes we are trying to build robots just like us, that is, we are designing robots without thinking of specific tasks or workplaces,” said Dr. John Long, Professor of Biology and Professor of Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair of Natural History at Vassar College. “By contrast, projects like the DARPA Robotics Challenge take an intermediate approach, urging us to consider explicitly defined tasks in a human environment that has not been modified to help the robot, such as the site of a disaster.”
The Problem with the Hand
DARPA’s robots had to be able to perform tasks like holding tools made for humans, ascending and descending stairs, and turning knobs and cranks, meaning they needed very dexterous hands. Using our fingers and opposable thumbs is a major part of what makes us human, so it’s a high-priority mission to accomplish.
Dr. Long spoke to the engineering complications associated with this task. “Hands turn out to be very complex to engineer, in part because each one has at least 15 degrees of freedom—three for each finger,” he said. “Each degree of freedom needs to be under independent control, yet it’s difficult to fit all the electric motors or pneumatic muscles into the confined space of a human-sized hand.”
However, we’re getting closer. Dr. Long specifically cited the RAPHaEL robotic hand—RAPHaEL, incidentally, stands for Robotic Air-Powered Hand with Elastic Ligaments—as an example of dynamic problem-solving and engineering. RAPHaEL is powered by compressed gas to move its fingers, allowing for precise and careful levels of grip and force to be applied throughout the hand. Dr. Long said it was first introduced at Virginia Tech in 2009. Other companies are solving “the hand problem” with 3-D cameras mounted in the hand itself, simpler mitten-like hands for gripping, and so on.
With innovations like the robot tongue upon us, we take another step towards the world of human-like robots. The Scottish engineering team says the robotic tongue can soon be programmed to recognize many specific flavors—that is, if it can raise its glass to its mouth.
Dr. John Long contributed to this article. Dr. Long is a Professor of Biology and a Professor of Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair of Natural History at Vassar College. He also serves as the Director of Vassar’s Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, which he helped found in 2003. Professor Long received his Ph.D. in Zoology from Duke University.