If you are looking for an answer to the question What is Artificial Intelligence? and you only have a minute, then here's the definition the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence offers on its home page: "the scientific understanding of the mechanisms underlying thought and intelligent behavior and their embodiment in machines."
However, if you are fortunate enough to have more than a minute, then please get ready to embark upon an exciting journey exploring AI (but beware, it could last a lifetime) …
The work, reported May 31 in Science, is a step toward creating artificial skin for prosthetic limbs, to restore sensation to amputees and, perhaps, one day give robots some type of reflex capability. "We take skin for granted but it's a complex sensing, signaling and decision-making system," said Zhenan Bao, a professor of chemical engineering and one of the senior authors. "This artificial sensory nerve system is a step toward making skin-like sensory neural networks for all sorts of applications." This milestone is part of Bao's quest to mimic how skin can stretch, repair itself and, most remarkably, act like a smart sensory network that knows not only how to transmit pleasant sensations to the brain, but also when to order the muscles to react reflexively to make prompt decisions. The new Science paper describes how the researchers constructed an artificial sensory nerve circuit that could be embedded in a future skin-like covering for neuro-prosthetic devices and soft robotics.
Artificial skin stands to have a variety uses, with potential applications in everything from robots to prosthetics. And in recent years, researchers have been able to instill sensory perception, like touch and pressure, into artificial skin. However, while those sorts of senses will be incredibly important in engineered skin, they've so far been rather limited. For example, while current versions can be quite sensitive to light touch, they don't fare so well with high pressures that could cause damage. So researchers at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China set out to fix that problem and they drew their inspiration from jellyfish.
As robots get more advanced and perform more complicated tasks, such as conducting a philharmonic orchestra in Italy, there is still one thing the machines certainly cannot do: feel. However, if scientists from the University of Houston have anything to say about it, that may change soon, at least insofar as the sense of touch is concerned. Cunjiang Yu, an assistant professor at the university and three other researchers created "a semiconductor in a rubber composite format" that can stretch and still retain functionality, allowing a robotic hand to feel temperature differences and distinguish between hot and cold. Writing in the journal Science Advances, they described "a new mechanism for producing stretchable electronics, a process that relies upon readily available materials and could be scaled up for commercial production," according to a statement on the university' website. Semiconductors are usually brittle and incorporating them into stretchable materials usually involves complicated procedures, Yu said in the statement, making the resulting materials both less stable and more expensive than the new material created by his team.
Artificial skin with post-human sensing capabilities, and a better understanding of skin tissue, could pave the way for robots that can feel, smart-transplants and even cyborgs. Few people would immediately recognise the skin as our bodies' largest organ, but the adult human has on average two square metres of it. It's also one of the most important organs and is full of nerve endings that provide us with instant reports of temperature, pressure and pain. So far the best attempts to copy this remarkable organ have resulted in experimental skin with sensor arrays that, at best, can only measure one particular stimulus. But the SmartCore project, funded by the EU's European Research Council and at the Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) in Austria, hopes to create a material that responds to multiple stimuli.
Intelligent algorithms are starting to perceive sights and sounds like human beings. Androids are taking more anthropomorphic forms, powered by actuators wrapped silicone and latex skins. Even these skins are becoming increasingly lifelike. Earlier this year, researchers created an artificial material that's twice as sensitive as human skin. And this month, a team of Oxford professors proposed a provocative idea -- grow human tissue on humanoid robots.
In a decade or so, people may not have to tidy their house, clean up after the dog, or even nag their spouse to do chores. A friendly, human-like robot will take care of routine tasks, and it won't whine or fight back. If technologists' predictions bear out, this second coming of robots could be more pervasive than the first in the '60s, when industrial robots revolutionized manufacturing. Designed to mimic the look and gestures of humans, the new breed of personal robots eventually may have artificial skin and muscles, as well as eye and facial expressions, and they might speak more naturally. But for this rapidly evolving field to take off, scientists will have to improve the quality and reliability of electronics first, and companies will have to find the application that every household must have.