Artificial ‘skin’ gives robotic hand a sense of touch

University of Houston researchers have reported a development in stretchable electronics that can serve as artificial skin for a robotic hand and biomedical devices (credit: University of Houston)

A team of researchers from the University of Houston has reported a development in stretchable electronics that can serve as an artificial skin, allowing a robotic hand to sense the difference between hot and cold, and also offering advantages for a wide range of biomedical devices.

The work, reported in the open-access journal Science Advances, describes a new mechanism for producing stretchable electronics, a process that relies upon readily available materials and could be scaled up for commercial production.

Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering and lead author of the paper, said the work is the first to create a semiconductor in a rubber composite format, designed to allow the electronic components to retain functionality even after the material is stretched by 50 percent.

He noted that traditional semiconductors are brittle and using them in otherwise stretchable materials has required a complicated system of mechanical accommodations. That’s both more complex and less stable than the new discovery, as well as more expensive, he said. “Our strategy has advantages for simple fabrication, scalable manufacturing, high-density integration, large strain tolerance, and low cost,” he said.

Photograph of a robotic hand with intrinsically stretchable rubbery sensors (credit: Hae-Jin Kim et al./Science Advances)

The team used the skin to demonstrate that a robotic hand could sense the temperature of hot and iced water in a cup. The skin also was able to interpret computer signals sent to the hand and reproduce the signals as American Sign Language.

Uses of the stretchable skin include soft wearable electronics such as health monitors, medical implants, and human-machine interfaces.

The stretchable composite semiconductor was prepared by using a silicon-based polymer known as polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) and tiny nanowires to create a solution that was then hardened into a material that used the nanowires to transport electric current.

Abstract of Rubbery electronics and sensors from intrinsically stretchable elastomeric composites of semiconductors and conductors

A general strategy to impart mechanical stretchability to stretchable electronics involves engineering materials into special architectures to accommodate or eliminate the mechanical strain in nonstretchable electronic materials while stretched. We introduce an all solution–processed type of electronics and sensors that are rubbery and intrinsically stretchable as an outcome from all the elastomeric materials in percolated composite formats with P3HT-NFs [poly(3-hexylthiophene-2,5-diyl) nanofibrils] and AuNP-AgNW (Au nanoparticles with conformally coated silver nanowires) in PDMS (polydimethylsiloxane). The fabricated thin-film transistors retain their electrical performances by more than 55% upon 50% stretching and exhibit one of the highest P3HT-based field-effect mobilities of 1.4 cm2/V∙s, owing to crystallinity improvement. Rubbery sensors, which include strain, pressure, and temperature sensors, show reliable sensing capabilities and are exploited as smart skins that enable gesture translation for sign language alphabet and haptic sensing for robotics to illustrate one of the applications of the sensors.

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Neuroscientists restore vegetative-state patient’s consciousness with vagus nerve stimulation

Information sharing increases after vagus nerve stimulation over centroposterior regions of the brain. (Left) Coronal view of weighted symbolic mutual information (wSMI) shared by all channels pre- and post-vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) (top and bottom, respectively). For visual clarity, only links with wSMI higher than 0.025 are shown. (Right) Topographies of the median wSMI that each EEG channel shares with all the other channels pre- and post-VNS (top and bottom, respectively). The bar graph represents the median wSMI over right centroposterior electrodes (darker dots) which significantly increases post-VNS. (credit: Martina Corazzol et al./Current Biology)

A 35-year-old man who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years after a car accident has shown signs of consciousness after neurosurgeons in France implanted a vagus nerve stimulator into his chest — challenging the general belief that disorders of consciousness that persist for longer than 12 months are irreversible.

In a 2007 Weill Cornell Medical College study reported in Nature, neurologists found temporary improvements in patients in a state of minimal consciousness while being treated with bilateral deep brain electrical stimulation (DBS) of the central thalamus. Aiming instead to achieve permanent results, the French researchers proposed use of vagus nerve stimulation* (VNS) to activate the thalamo-cortical network, based on the “hypothesis that vagus nerve stimulation functionally reorganizes the thalamo-cortical network.”

A vagus neural stimulation therapy system. The vagus nerve connects the brain to many other parts of the body, including the gut. It’s known to be important in waking, alertness, and many other essential functions. (credit: Cyberonics, Inc./LivaNova)

After one month of VNS — a treatment currently used for epilepsy and depression — the patient’s attention, movements, and brain activity significantly improved and he began responding to simple orders that were impossible before, the researchers report today (Sept. 25, 2017) in an open-access paper in Current Biology.

For example, he could follow an object with his eyes and turn his head upon request, and when the examiner’s head suddenly approached the patient’s face, he reacted with surprise by opening his eyes wide.

Evidence from brain-activity recordings

PET images acquired during baseline (left: pre-VNS) and 3 months post vagus nerve stimulation (right: post-VNS). After vagus nerve stimulation, the metabolism increased in the right parieto-occipital cortex, thalamus and striatum. (credit: Corazzol et al.)

“After one month of stimulation, when [electrical current] intensity reached 1 mA, clinical examination revealed reproducible and consistent improvements in general arousal, sustained attention, body motility, and visual pursuit,” the researchers note.

Brain-activity recordings in the new study revealed major changes. A theta EEG signal (important for distinguishing between a vegetative and minimally conscious state) increased significantly in those areas of the brain involved in movement, sensation, and awareness. The brain’s functional connectivity also increased. And a PET scan showed increases in metabolic activity in both cortical and subcortical regions of the brain.

The researchers also speculate that “since the vagus nerve has bidirectional control over the brain and the body, reactivation of sensory/visceral afferences might have enhanced brain activity within a body/brain closed loop process.”

The team is now planning a large collaborative study to confirm and extend the therapeutic potential of VNS for patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state.

However, “some physicians and brain injury specialists remain skeptical about whether the treatment truly worked as described,” according to an article today in Science. “The surgery to implant the electrical stimulator, the frequent behavioral observations, and the moving in and out of brain scanners all could have contributed to the patient’s improved state, says Andrew Cole, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston who studies consciousness. ‘I’m not saying their claim is untrue,’ he says. ‘I’m just saying it’s hard to interpret based on the results as presented.’”

The study was supported by CNRS, ANR, and a grant from the University of Lyon

* “The vagus nerve carries somatic and visceral efferents and afferents distributed throughout the central nervous system, either monosynaptically or via the nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS). The vagus directly modulates activity in the brainstem and via the NTS it reaches the dorsal raphe nuclei, the thalamus, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. In humans, vagus nerve stimulation increases metabolism in the forebrain, thalamus and reticular formation. It also enhances neuronal firing in the locus coeruleus which leads to massive release of norepinephrine in the thalamus and hippocampus, a noradrenergic pathway important for arousal, alertness and the fight-or-flight response.” — Corazzol and Lio et al./Current Biology

Abstract of Restoring consciousness with vagus nerve stimulation

Patients lying in a vegetative state present severe impairments of consciousness [1] caused by lesions in the cortex, the brainstem, the thalamus and the white matter [2]. There is agreement that this condition may involve disconnections in long-range cortico–cortical and thalamo-cortical pathways [3]. Hence, in the vegetative state cortical activity is ‘deafferented’ from subcortical modulation and/or principally disrupted between fronto-parietal regions. Some patients in a vegetative state recover while others persistently remain in such a state. The neural signature of spontaneous recovery is linked to increased thalamo-cortical activity and improved fronto-parietal functional connectivity [3]. The likelihood of consciousness recovery depends on the extent of brain damage and patients’ etiology, but after one year of unresponsive behavior, chances become low [1]. There is thus a need to explore novel ways of repairing lost consciousness. Here we report beneficial effects of vagus nerve stimulation on consciousness level of a single patient in a vegetative state, including improved behavioral responsiveness and enhanced brain connectivity patterns.

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New system allows near-zero-power sensors to communicate data over long distances

Source: New system allows near-zero-power sensors to communicate data over long distances

Walking DNA nanorobot could deliver a drug to a precise location in your body

DNA nanorobot cargo carrier (artist’s impression) (credit: Ella Maru Studio)

Caltech scientists have developed a “cargo sorting” DNA nanorobot programmed to autonomously “walk” around a surface, pick up certain molecules, and drop them off in designated locations.

The research is described in a paper in the Friday, September 15, 2017 issue of Science.

The major advance in this study is “their methodology for designing simple DNA devices that work in parallel to solve nontrivial tasks,” notes Duke University computer scientist John H. Reif in an article in the same issue of Science.

Such tasks could include synthesizing a drug in a molecular factory or delivering a drug only when a specific signal is present in bloodstreams, say the researchers. “So far, the development of DNA robots has been limited to simple functions,” the researchers note.

Walking nanobots that work in parallel

Conceptual illustration of two DNA nanorobots collectively performing a cargo-sorting task on a DNA origami surface: transporting fluorescent molecules with different colors from initially random locations to ordered destinations. (credit: Demin Liu)

The DNA nanorobot, intended as a proof of concept, has a “leg” with two “feet” for walking, and an “arm” and “hand” for picking up cargo. It also has a segment that can recognize a specific drop-off point and signal to the hand to release its cargo. Each of these building blocks are made of just a few nucleotides (molecules that form DNA) within a single strand of DNA.*

As the robot encounters cargo molecules tethered to pegs, it grabs them with its “hand” components and carries them around (with a 6-nm step size) until it detects the signal of the drop-off point.

Multiple DNA nanorobots independently execute three operations in parallel: [1] cargo pickup, [2] random movement to adjacent stepping stones, and [3] cargo drop-off at ordered locations. (credit: C. Bickel/Science)

In experiments, the nanorobots successfully sorted six randomly scattered molecules into their correct places in 24 hours. The process is slow, but adding more robots to the surface shortened the time it took to complete the task. The very simple robot design utilizes very little chemical energy, according to the researchers.**

“The same system design can be generalized to work with dozens of types of cargos at any arbitrary initial location on the surface,” says lead author Anupama Thubagere. “One could also have multiple robots performing diverse sorting tasks in parallel,” [programmed] like macroscopic robots.”

Future applications

“We don’t develop DNA robots for any specific applications. Our lab focuses on discovering the engineering principles that enable the development of general-purpose DNA robots,” explains Lulu Qian, assistant professor of bioengineering.

“However, it is my hope that other researchers could use these principles for exciting applications, such as synthesizing a therapeutic chemical from its constituent parts in an artificial molecular factory, or sorting molecular components in trash for recycling. Just like electromechanical robots are sent off to faraway places, like Mars, we would like to send molecular robots to minuscule places where humans can’t go, such as the bloodstream.”

Funding was provided by Caltech Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships, the National Science Foundation, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

* The key to designing DNA machines is the fact that DNA has unique chemical and physical properties that are known and programmable. A single strand of DNA is made up of four different molecules called nucleotides—abbreviated A, G, C, and T—and arranged in a string called a sequence. These nucleotides bond in specific pairs: A with T, and G with C. When a single strand encounters a “reverse complementary strand” — for example, CGATT meets AATCG —the two strands zip together in the classic double-helix shape.

** Using these chemical and physical principles, researchers can also design “playgrounds,” such as molecular pegboards, to test them on, according to the researchers. In the current work, the DNA robot moves around on a 58-nanometer-by-58-nanometer pegboard on which the pegs are made of single strands of DNA complementary to the robot’s leg and foot. The robot binds to a peg with its leg and one of its feet — the other foot floats freely. When random molecular fluctuations cause this free foot to encounter a nearby peg, it pulls the robot to the new peg and its other foot is freed. This process continues with the robot moving in a random direction at each step.

Abstract of A cargo-sorting DNA robot

Two critical challenges in the design and synthesis of molecular robots are modularity and
algorithm simplicity.We demonstrate three modular building blocks for a DNA robot that
performs cargo sorting at themolecular level. A simple algorithm encoding recognition between
cargos and their destinations allows for a simple robot design: a single-stranded DNA with
one leg and two foot domains for walking, and one arm and one hand domain for picking up and
dropping off cargos.The robot explores a two-dimensional testing ground on the surface of
DNA origami, picks up multiple cargos of two types that are initially at unordered locations, and
delivers them to specified destinations until all molecules are sorted into two distinct piles.
The robot is designed to perform a random walk without any energy supply. Exploiting this
feature, a single robot can repeatedly sort multiple cargos. Localization on DNA origami allows
for distinct cargo-sorting tasks to take place simultaneously in one test tube or for multiple
robots to collectively perform the same task.

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Download of the day: Beacon

Beacon is a relaxing ‘endless runner’ game designed to help you wind down after a long day.

A white ball runs around a rotating, color-shifting möbius strip, and you can tap the space bar to make it jump. Each jump leaves a block on the strip, which you can pick up on your next lap for a speed boost.

If you accidentally run into the block rather than hopping onto or over it, you’ll be slowed down again. There’s no score or fail state to worry about though – just keep moving and jumping, and enjoy the relaxing music.

To start playing, download and extract the ZIP archive, then run the file Beacon.exe.

Download here: Beacon

Download of the Day is our pick of the best free software around – whether it’s useful, fun, or just plain silly. If you have any recommendations, please send them to

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The best Argos Black Friday deals 2017

Get ready: the 2017 instalment of Black Friday is fast approaching, and so now’s the time to prepare. Part of those preparations will involve knowing exactly where all of the very best bargains can be picked up, and we can help – the most tempting Argos deals for 2017 that we’ve come across are listed below.

Argos always goes all-in for Black Friday, which we like, and it looks like this year’s extravaganza isn’t going to be any different. Of course Argos has a bewildering number of categories and departments to sift through, but we’re going to focus on all the best tech and gadget deals you can pick up, as well as a few extra surprises.

Save yourself some frantic clicking and scrolling by browsing through the selections below, which we’ll update before, during and after Black Friday 2017. If there’s an electronics deal that you need to know about, then you’re going to find it here – whether it’s a cut-price gaming console or a significant saving on a smartphone.

Don’t waste any more time reading this introduction – check out the best of Argos Black Friday 2017 below!

Black Friday deals quick links

Argos Black Friday deals

To get you more in the mood for Black Friday 2017 here are some of the best deals that Argos announced during the shopping craziness that was Black Friday 2016.

Gaming Black Friday deals – Black Friday is usually the perfect time to pick up that games console you’ve had your eye on, and Argos made the purchase of a PS4 Slim that little bit more appealing by reducing its Call of Duty Infinite Warfare bundle down to £199.99.

More recently the price of a limited edition gold PS4 Slim, with a 500GB hard drive, was down to £249.99 – so you can see that if gaming is what you’re interested in, Argos is often the best place to go.

TV Black Friday deals – Argos usually comes up with the goods when it comes to deals on TVs, and Black Friday 2016 was no different, with the 43-inch LG 43LH570V Full HD Smart LED TV (complete with USB recording and playback capabilities) down to £295 on the day.

Gadgets Black Friday deals – as we’ve mentioned, one of the reasons we pay special attention to Argos on Black Friday is because it has so many gadgets on offer, including the full-sized Amazon Echo, which last year could be yours for the bargain price of £119.99.

Smartphone Black Friday deals – Black Friday is also the perfect time to get that smartphone upgrade you’ve been promising yourself as there are so many decent deals around, such as £50 off the LG G4 at Argos last year, putting the price down to just £249.95.

Tablet Black Friday deals – if you were more interested in tablets than smartphones during Black Friday 2016, then Argos had you covered in this department too. The 32GB Wi-Fi iPad Air 2, for example, could be picked up for a mere £209 in silver or space grey.

Audio Black Friday deals – audiophiles really were spoilt for choice at Argos during Black Friday 2016, with a pile of offers available. One of the best was the Bose SoundSport audio-only in-ear headphones on offer at half price, just £39.99 of your hard-earned cash.

More recently the Google Home speaker has been knocked down to £99, which is £30 off the regular retail price.

Toy Black Friday deals – Argos is also a great choice for toys of all descriptions. One of the Black Friday deals that particularly caught our eye last year was the Disney Star Wars AT-AT U Command Figure for only £79.99, offering plenty of Star Wars fun for fans of all ages.

As well as that we’ve spotted Argos’ lowest prices ever on the colourful Furby Connect dolls, down to £34.99 online recently.

Argos on Black Friday 2017: what you need to know

All of the usual benefits you know and love from Argos still apply on Black Friday of course, from the easy ordering system to the broad range of categories. You’ve got the option of visiting a store in person if you want to save on delivery charges too – just double-check opening times and traffic conditions before you do (though you do have a seven-day window to pick up purchases).

Argos recommends getting yourself an account before Black Friday 2017 hits, if you don’t already have one, so you’re set up and ready to go on the actual day (otherwise you’ll have to spend time entering address and payment details). On top of that, signing up for email updates is a good idea if you want to be the first to hear about the best deals, and if needed you can spread the cost of purchases with an Argos Card (check online for details).

As soon as the clock strikes midnight on the Thursday, the deals go live, and according to Argos the quietest time on its website on Black Friday 2016 was between 3am and 4am – so if you want the pick of the bargains before anyone else, you might want to consider an early start. Meanwhile, if you’re heading into a store to browse through the catalogue or pick something up, Argos says it’ll be putting extra staff on to lend a hand as well.

The top 5 Argos Black Friday deals last year

1. HP 15-ay020na laptop bundle

Black Friday is always a good opportunity to pick up a cheap laptop: last year Argos was selling the HP 15-ay020na laptop with a bag, mouse and a copy of McAfee for just £269.99.

2. Amazon Fire tablet

The Amazon Fire tablets are some of the best value slates around, especially on Black Friday – last year you could pick up an Amazon Fire 7 tablet with Alexa for only £29.99.

3. Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge

The S6 Edge still holds up pretty well against the flagship smartphones of 2017, and last Black Friday at Argos the price of one of these handsets was discounted down to £419.95.

4. Sony KD55XD7005 4K TV

4K TVs have never been cheaper – for just £769 you could have bagged a Sony KD55XD7005 55-inch model running Android TV last year, more than £200 off the model’s original price.

5. The Force Awakens Interactive Darth Vader

Star Wars fans were spoilt last Black Friday at Argos, with this interactive Darth Vader toy figure reduced from £119.99 to just £24.99, a bargain whatever side of the Force you’re on.

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‘We were a community before the Pi’: CEO Eben Upton on five years of Raspberry Pi

Eben Upton, founder and CEO of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, is trying to illustrate how huge the Raspberry Pi phenomenon has become:  “In 2011 I had a spreadsheet that told me where every single Raspberry Pi prototype was (there were 50). Fast forward to 2017, we’ve sold nearly 15 million units and we’ve a guy in Japan using one to sort cucumbers!” 

He is referring to his favourite project in which a Japanese man has used a Raspberry Pi to categorize cucumbers on his parent’s farm. 

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the original Raspberry Pi launch, and the cucumber anecdote provides an interesting indication of how far the Foundation and its product (a credit card sized microcomputer designed to inspire the next generation of coders) has come. 

What started as a recruitment drive for the Computer Science department at Cambridge University rapidly became a movement that has helped the world fall in love with the subject. 

The Raspberry Pi Foundation was born out of a problem. In the mid 2000s Eben was the Director of Studies in Computer Science at St John’s College Cambridge and, in his own words, “the number of people applying to study here had collapsed”. 

“We need to make the Raspberry Pi a little bit simpler to use.”

Eben Upton

In the 1980s Cambridge’s course attracted 600 applicants annually but by the early 2000s that number was down to 200 and that drop convinced many that the dwindling interest must be addressed. The Foundation also had concerns about the profession’s male dominated nature (“our industry has a diversity problem”) and recognised inspiring kids with a fun product for all might go some way in rectifying the gender divide. 

These concerns resulted in the 2009 formation of the Raspberry Pi Foundation whose aim was “to develop and market a $25 microcomputer for education” and in 2012 that microcomputer, the Raspberry Pi 1 Model B, went on sale (‘Raspberry’ to follow in tradition of fruit named computers, and ‘Pi’ because it promotes the programming language Python). 

500,000 units a month

Before launch the Foundation “had a very parochial view of what success might be, we were just interested in getting a few more applications to Cambridge”. But when the 29th February 2012 arrived (launch day) and online retailers repeatedly crashed under the weight of orders it became clear the Foundation was onto something. The figures are stunning. A million units sold in the first year, in a good month the factory (Sony’s Pencoed facility in South Wales) churns out 500,000 of the hero product (the Pi 3) and there’s a good chance they’ll shift six million units in 2017 alone.

So why the success? Eben puts it down to giving kids control: “when you’re a young person you don’t have an enormous amount of power”. But give a child Lego, Minecraft or a one of the six Raspberry Pi models on sale (the most expensive of which is only £32.98/AUD $67.95/USD $35) and the creative possibilities prove irresistible.

The community of dedicated hobbyists and enthusiasts has also been crucial to its success, and Eben points out that “we’ve been a community a lot longer than we’ve been a product company”. In 2011 development of the first Raspberry Pi was broadcast across the company’s website and social media channels, and a following quickly grew. 

Astro Pi

Since then the community has been wowing the internet with their commitment to producing projects that include everything from an artificial pancreas to a missile system that shoots foam darts at underperforming colleagues. Two Raspberry Pi (called Astro Pi) even spent some time on the International Space Station with Major Tim Peake in 2016. 

If the community, the Foundation’s lifeblood, is a success it is because it’s carefully moderated and curated online. It is “a community where there are no stupid questions”. As a result there is a culture of learning that encourages inclusion, and this has helped the community boom.

“So far, 40% of kids involved are girls.”

Eben Upton

Perhaps most pleasingly for the Foundation (and the other institutions involved in the computer science revival in Cambridge’s ‘Silicon Fen’) applications to study the subject have recovered significantly, and today the university receives around 800 applications each year to learn at the faculty. 

Accolades have joined the stella sales, and in June 2017 the Foundation was awarded Britain’s top engineering prize, the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award, and the Raspberry Pi overtook the Commodore 64 in sales to become Britain’s best selling computer. The Amstrad Emailer, this is not. 

Making it simpler

So what of the future? In the long term the Foundation will focus on more hardware, but the Pi 3 (launched in 2016) is likely to be a three year product and so the company is currently focusing on the software side of things, with Eben stating that “to achieve the mission for everyone we need to make it (the Raspberry Pi) a little bit simpler to use”. 

Things should be made easier by the charitable work of the Foundation itself. This has numerous organisations focused on getting Raspberry Pi into the hands of the next generation, and teaching them how to use it. 

Among the Foundation’s successes has been a free magazine for teachers called ‘HelloWorld’ and the ‘Picademy’, which teaches educators to make the best of Raspberry Pi in class. 

Perhaps the most successful bit of business has been to increase the reach of the Raspberry Pi by merging the Foundation with Code Club and CoderDojo, two of the “premier international club brands” that introduce children to coding.

Code Club has recently extended its age category to 13 so that secondary schools can take part, and so far 40% of kids involved are girls. In the long term the Foundation is keen to bring its products, and eventually full charitable programs, to the developing world.

It has been a busy five years for the Foundation, the Raspberry Pi and Eben. When I ask what he’d like the microcomputer’s legacy to be, he says that in 30 years if just “one person will look back on Raspberry Pi with the same fondness that I look back on my BBC Micro” he will be a happy man. Given his sales figures I wouldn’t say he has much to worry about. Happy Birthday Raspberry Pi.

Our top five Raspberry Pi projects

From the sublime to the ridiculous, our top five Raspberry Pi projects…

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