This Flexible Skin Can Actually Give Robots A Real Sense Of ‘Touch’

In their quest to take over the world and replace human beings, robots were missing one always crucial element – the ability to perform tasks quite as effectively as people do.

But now all that has changed.

A team of robotics engineers in the USA have made an “important breakthrough” in developing a flexible skin that allows machines to feel what they are doing (and when it is going wrong) so they can rectify the situation.

It’s a feature that will make them better at everything from cooking an omelette to dismantling roadside bombs.

UCLA Engineering

In order for robots to perform delicate tasks, such as cooking, housework, or surgery, they need to know whether a small or delicate object is slipping out of their grasp.

Jonathan Posner, a senior author on the study, said: “If a robot is going to dismantle an improvised explosive device, it needs to know whether it’s hand is sliding along a wire or pulling on it. Or to hold on to a medical instrument, it needs to know if the object is slipping.”

To date it has been impossible for robotic hands to accurately sense the vibrations and forces that occur, for example, when an object is starting to fall.

Some robots already use fully instrumented fingers but that sense of ‘touch’ is still limited to that appendage and such skins have not yet provided a full range of tactile information.

But the team from the University of Washington have now created a bio-inspired skin that can be stretched over any part of a robot, or prosthetic, to successfully grasp and manipulate objects in everyday tasks.

This is a giant step forward in the effective application real-world of robotics.

The skin, manufactured at the nanofabrication facility,  is made from the same silicone rubber used in swimming goggles and embedded with tiny serpentine channels that are roughly half the width of a human hair. 

These channels are filled with electronically conductive liquid metal, which won’t crack or fatigue as solid wires do.

And prototypes have shown they are able to measure tactile information with more precision and sensitivity than human skin.

This development is so important because it will allow robots in the future to open doors, interact with a phone, shake hands, pick up packages, and handle objects, among many other things.

Associate professor Veronica Santos, says: “The fact that our latest skin prototype incorporates all three modalities creates many new possibilities for machine learning-based approaches for advancing robot capabilities.”

Scarily human. | Alarming increase in childhood obesity over 4 decades

In 2012, the South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition (SAJCN) published research to emphasise the alarming statistics regarding childhood obesity in South Africa.

These statistics painted a shocking picture – 13.5% of children between the ages six and 14 were considered overweight or obese.

Obesity is not unique to South Africa, though. Childhood obesity has increased more than 10-fold worldwide since 1975, a new study reports.

A huge jump

But even more children are underweight than severely overweight, according to the analysis of data from 200 countries.

Researchers found that by 2016 overall obesity rates had jumped from less than 1% to almost 6% for girls and nearly 8% for boys – with rates at 20% or higher in the United States, Egypt and some Polynesian islands.

Focus on improved nutrition

A two-pronged strategy is needed to improve nutrition and reduce excessive weight gain, according to the study.

It was published in The Lancet journal.

“Rates of child and adolescent obesity have increased significantly over the past four decades in most countries in the world,” study author James Bentham said in a journal news release.

“While average BMI among children and adolescents has recently plateaued in Europe and North America, this is not an excuse for complacency as more than 1 in 5 young people in the USA and 1 in ten in the UK are obese,” said Bentham, of the University of Kent in England. Body mass index, or BMI, is a measurement of body fat based on height and weight.

Obesity rates accelerating 

Bentham said rates of child and adolescent obesity are accelerating in East, South and Southeast Asia, and continue to increase in other low- and middle-income regions.

Overall, 50 million girls and 74 million boys are now obese, which sets them up for serious health problems, the researchers said.

Obesity rates were highest (above 30% in some islands in Polynesia, including Nauru and the Cook Islands). Besides the United States and some countries in the Middle East and North Africa, obesity rates of about 20% or more were seen in the Caribbean (Bermuda and Puerto Rico).

The United States, however, had moved from sixth place to 15th over the four-decade study. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, had climbed up the scale, from 29th to 17th.

In addition to the 124 million children considered obese, 213 million youths ages 5 to 19 were overweight around the world in 2016, the researchers said.

Health in jeopardy 

“The trends show that without serious, concerted action to address obesity, the health of millions of people will be needlessly placed in great jeopardy, leading to immense human and economic costs to communities,” said study author Leanne Riley, of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

But despite the burgeoning obese population, being underweight remains a huge concern in many areas. The study found that 75 million girls and 117 million boys were moderately or severely underweight. Nearly two-thirds of these youngsters were in South Asia.

Policy needed for food security 

“There is a continued need for policies that enhance food security in low-income countries and households, especially in South Asia,” said study author Majid Ezzati of Imperial College London.

Ezzati said the transition from underweight to overweight and obesity can happen quickly, referring to an influx of nutrient-poor, high-calorie foods in developing nations.

The findings highlight the “disconnect” between the global dialogue on overweight and obesity and initiatives focusing on under-nutrition, Ezzati said.

The research was led by the WHO and Imperial College London. The investigators relied on information from more than 2 400 prior studies.

Image credits: iStock

NEXT ON HEALTH24X | ‘Palliative care gave me hope when there was none’

In most cases parents aren’t prepared to handle the emotional, physical or financial shock of having to deal with a child suffering from a terminal disease. 

Many children suffer from life threatening illnesses – a situation that also has a huge impact on their families. Parents often struggle to cope with the financial burden and providing the emotional support these patients require.

Paedspal consults with about 25 new and existing patients weekly, and will reach nearly 300 patients by the end of the year.

An array of services

South Africa released its first national palliative care policy, developed by the National Department of Health together with palliative care experts.

In the Western Cape, parents have the support of Paedspal, a public-private programme that assists and supports children living with terminal illnesses. They offer an array of services ranging from aromatherapy massages to family counselling sessions with the strong support of three doctors, a social worker and several nurses.

Health24 previously reported on 11-year-old Naaziyah Manuel who passed away from ovarian cancer. Her mother, Zerina Amien spoke to us about the support Paedspal offered both Naaziya and the family.

Not only did Paedspal offer emotional support, they also gave both mother and daughter the opportunity to relax and destress with aromatherapy massages.

She also explained that all counselling sessions between patients were confidential.

“Conversations between Naaziya and them [Paedspal] were confidential, as were the conversations we had with them.”

A rare medical condition

Together with Paedspal, a palliative network called PatchSA (Palliative Treatment and Care for Children of South Africa) within SA is an inclusive network that offers advice, tools and opportunities to both patients and their families or caregivers.

palliative care,huyaam,patchsa,paedspalSpeaking to PatchSA Ambassador and Palliative Care Advocate, Huyaam Samuels explains her struggle living with a rare medical condition called Pseudoachondroplasia and Hypermobility Syndrome. This condition causes severe chronic pain throughout her body with muscle spasms – but doctors couldn’t pick up what was wrong.

‘They gave me hope’

After receiving tireless help and support from Dr Meiring, CEO and Paedspal Paediatrician, and the team of doctors, Samuels found new hope.

“Living with a rare medical condition, doctors failed to believe the pain I was in or take me seriously.

“Palliative care has given me hope when there was none. They improved the quality of life for both my family and me.”

Their work is mostly done through their website and social media platforms as they aren’t  always able to engage with patients on a one-to-one basis. 

The Science Of Safer Pregnancy: How Mini ‘Placentas On A Chip’ May Help Us Understand Pre-eclampsia

The placenta may be the most important organ in a body – it gives life to us all – and yet it is probably the least-studied organ.

The placenta is the gatekeeper for a foetus, allowing a mother’s nutrients to pass in one direction while waste passes back into the mother’s bloodstream. It produces hormones to encourage foetal growth and offers protection against most bacteria, although not against viruses.

But, when the placenta fails to function normally, it can put the health and life of both foetus and mother at serious risk, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. Among the biggest such problems is pre-eclampsia, which kills half a million babies and around 76,000 mothers every year globally.


The condition affects up to 5 per cent of all pregnancies – Kim Kardashian recently suffered both pre-eclampsia and placenta accreta, another dangerous condition in which the placenta grows too deeply into the wall of the uterus.

Even when babies survive pre-eclampsia, they can suffer from growth restriction or other health problems, including brain and heart defects, and diabetes, later in life. Growth restriction is the most common factor in still-births, when there are insufficient placental blood vessels to keep the foetus nourished.

And how do we treat this killer condition? The tools we have are no more advanced than aspirin, and premature deliveries.

Aspirin is our frontline tool but is effective only if taken early in pregnancy. Other drugs combat symptoms, such as lowering blood pressure.

Ultimately, our only prevention is to induce premature delivery.

Research into the placenta is desperately needed, which is why my team at Aston Medical School is developing a radical new way of carrying out tests on the organ.

The Aston University team will collaborate with engineers from a Dutch company, Mimetas, developing a method of growing human placentas on a ‘chip’ – we call it iPlacenta. The placentas are grown from cells harvested from umbilical cords, and so treatments can be tested without any risk to either mothers or foetuses.

These chips, which are about the size of a mobile phone, will hold up to 48 miniature placentas, each one of which can be an individual experiment. The chips can be slotted into existing equipment to make analysis both relatively easy and inexpensive.

The tiny placentas can also mimic the organ’s diseased state, hopefully allowing us an insight into how pre-eclampsia develops, so the condition can ultimately be identified and treated early.

This new research may be groundbreaking – even growing a single placenta would be an achievement – but it’s only one of three approaches we are taking at Aston. We’re also working on ultrasound techniques, with Samsung and FUJIFILM VisualSonics, to better understand the placenta and help us identify those most at risk.

And we’re also teaming up with mathematicians at the University of Rostock in Germany to build a huge computer model to help us understand pre-eclampsia. Ultimately, our ambition is to be able to use this model to predict outcomes for individual patients, and to help us build experiments for our iPlacenta chips.

The Aston research I coordinate is backed by €4million funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, and will involve experts in ten different centres feeding information into our programme. We are based at the UK’s newest medical school, at Aston University, which is headed up by Professor Asif Ahmed, a worldwide authority on pre-eclampsia.

Our research is really only just beginning and, as well as bringing health benefits, we hope that eventually our work will save the health service money – a lot of money.

It has been estimated that premature births cost the NHS almost £1billion a year, and that delaying premature births by just one week could save the NHS £260million a year – that’s because premature babies tend to need the highest levels of care.

But, as important as the financial costs are, it’s the human costs that are most significant. Kim Kardashian has been candid about the suffering pre-eclampsia and placenta accreta caused her, and she has access to the finest medical teams.

Tens of millions of other mothers around the world are not so lucky, which is why we need to be able to identify these conditions and treat them long before they become life-threatening and require major medical intervention.

This is, literally, a matter of life and death – for both mothers, and for babies who have barely started their lives. | Type 1 diabetes linked to coeliac disease

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Parents of young children with type 1 diabetes need to be on the lookout for symptoms of another autoimmune condition – coeliac disease, new research suggests.

The study found these youngsters appear to face a nearly tripled risk of developing coeliac disease autoantibodies, which eventually can lead to the disorder, which is chronic and causes an intolerance to gluten, which damages the small intestinal lining. The severity of symptoms differs from person to person.

Genetically related

“Type 1 diabetes and coeliac disease are closely related genetically,” explained study author Dr William Hagopian.

“People with one disease tend to get the other. People who have type 1 diabetes autoantibodies should get screened for coeliac autoantibodies,” Hagopian said. He directs the diabetes programme at the Pacific Northwest Research Institute in Seattle.

Insulin is a hormone that helps to usher the sugar from foods into the body’s cells to be used as fuel. Because the autoimmune attack leaves people with type 1 diabetes without enough insulin, they must replace the lost insulin through injections or an insulin pump with a temporary tube inserted under the skin.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine when gluten is consumed, according to the Coeliac Disease Foundation. Gluten is a protein found in wheat. Symptoms of coeliac disease include stomach pain and bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, weight loss, fatigue and delayed growth and puberty.

Early diagnosis important

Dr James Grendell is chief of the division of gastroenterology at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola, New York. He explained why knowing ahead of time that coeliac may be developing can be helpful.

“Early diagnosis of coeliac disease is important to initiate treatment with a gluten-free diet to prevent complications, particularly growth retardation in children,” he said.

“Other significant complications include iron-deficiency anemia, osteoporosis and a form of skin rash. Less common, but potentially lethal, complications include lymphoma and carcinoma of the small intestine,” Grendell added.

Treatment for the disease involves not ingesting anything containing gluten.

According to Hagopian, “Coeliac is about three times more common in the general population than type 1 diabetes.”

Previous research has pegged the co-occurrence of type 1 diabetes and coeliac disease at around 5% to 8%, the study authors said.

What the research entailed 

To get a better idea of when these diseases start to occur together, as well as what might trigger them, the researchers looked at data from a prospective study of children with a high genetic risk of developing type 1 diabetes. The primary aim of the study was to find environmental causes of type 1 diabetes.

The research included almost 6 000 youngsters from six US and European medical centers. The participants all had the necessary autoantibody testing. The median follow-up time was 66 months (5.5 years), the study said.

Autoantibodies linked to type 1 diabetes were found in 367 children, according to the report. Autoantibodies linked to coeliac disease were found in 808 youngsters. Autoantibodies associated with both conditions were found in 90 children.

Autoantibodies for type 1 diabetes typically appeared before those for coeliac disease, the study authors noted.

Association but not causation

That doesn’t necessarily mean that type 1 diabetes caused the development of coeliac autoantibodies, said Dr Christine Ferrara, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco. She co-authored an editorial that accompanied the study.

“The results of this paper demonstrate an association, but do not establish causation,” Ferrara said.

The findings were published online in the journal Pediatrics.

Hagopian said it’s possible that type 1 diabetes may somehow trigger coeliac disease. But it could also be an overlapping environmental factor that starts the disease process in both cases, he added.

Immune system needs to be regulated

Ferrara explained that “people need to recognise that regulation of the immune system underlies multiple disease processes.”

Hagopian said it’s important to note that the study only looked at children under six.

Grendell agreed with Hagopian that a diagnosis of type 1 should signal the need to look for coeliac disease.

“The take-home message for the public is that type 1 diabetes mellitus appears to be a risk factor for the development of coeliac disease and, as already recommended, patients [usually children] diagnosed with type 1 diabetes mellitus should be screened for this highly treatable disease,” he said.

Image credit: iStock