Why Tactile Intelligence Is the Future of Robotic Grasping
This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.
The simple task of picking something up is not as easy as it seems. Not for a robot, at least. Roboticists aim to develop a robot that can pick up anything—but today most robots perform “blind grasping,” where they’re dedicated to picking up an object from the same location every time. If anything changes, such as the shape, texture, or location of the object, the robot won’t know how to respond, and the grasp attempt will most likely fail.
Robots are still a long way off from being able to grasp any object perfectly on their first attempt. Why do grasping tasks pose such a difficult problem? Well, when people try to grasp something they use a combination of senses, the primary ones being visual and tactile. But so far, most attempts at solving the grasping problem have focused on using vision alone.
This approach is unlikely to give results that fully match human capabilities, because although vision is important for grasping tasks (such as for aiming at the right object), vision simply cannot tell you everything you need to know about grasping. Consider how Steven Pinker describes all the things the human sense of touch accomplishes: “Think of lifting a milk carton. Too loose a grasp, and you drop it; too tight, and you crush it; and with some gentle rocking, you can even use the tugging on your fingertips as a gauge of how much milk is inside!” he writes in How the Mind Works. Because robots lack these sensing capabilities, they still lag far behind humans when it comes to even the simplest pick-and-place tasks.
As a researcher leading the haptic and mechatronics group at the École de Technologie Supérieure’s Control and Robotics (CoRo) Lab in Montreal, Canada, and as co-founder of Robotiq, a robotics company based in Québec City, I’ve long been tracking the most significant developments in grasping methods. I’m now convinced that the current focus on robotic vision is unlikely to enable perfect grasping. In addition to vision, the future of robotic grasping requires something else: tactile intelligence.