According to research published in scientific journal Plos One in 2019, about 85 percent of those who reject the use of prosthetic devices cited the absence of sensation when wearing prosthetics as a reason for foregoing them.
Findings like these have motivated Benjamin Tee to develop technologies that can mimic functions of human skin and communicate sensations to the brain and muscles.
“René Descartes said, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ but to me, ‘I sense, therefore I am’ may be a more accurate representation,” says the head of the Sensor.AI Systems Labs at the National University of Singapore and principal investigator of Tee Research Group. “If you’re unable to sense the world, how do you know you exist?”
Tee’s research focuses on providing a sense of touch to machines by designing sensors to generate data for artificial intelligence systems. His team’s recent innovation is a high-speed electronic nervous system called Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (Aces).
Modelled after the human nervous system, it comprises a network of sensors that transmits electrical signals back to a receiver to detect touch. This electronic skin system not only mimics the human skin — and can detect touch more than 1,000 times faster than the human sensory nervous system and read Braille with over 90 percent accuracy — but can also be applied to prosthetics and robotics, healthcare, Internet of things and even space exploration.
“I would argue that intelligence is defined by the amount of sensor data you can receive and process per second,” Tee adds.
Clinical trials for Aces are slated for 2021, with sensor-enabled prosthetic devices set to shed light on how feedback can help patients who use them. “My dream is that, in the future, every intelligent machine that humans interface with uses our artificial nervous system and sensors. That keeps me awake, thinking about the possibilities.”
A lifelong admiration of science fiction was one of the reasons why Tee started doing research on flexible electronics in the early 2000s while still an undergraduate. “It gives you that space to imagine,” he says of the genre. “And then you work backwards and think, based on what we know, is this something we can build, and if we do it, will it achieve some kind of impact on human society? That’s been my research strategy.”
In fact, one of Tee’s influences was the scene in The Empire Strikes Back, where Luke Skywalker’s severed hand is replaced by a realistic robotic prosthetic that responds to touch. “I watched Star Wars on laser discs when I was a kid, and for some reason, that stuck with me,” he confides.
Building an artificial organ that behaves like a human’s might still seem like an abstract fantasy, but Tee remains optimistic as he quotes 2001: A Space Odyssey co-writer Arthur C. Clarke: “Magic is just science that we don’t understand yet.”
When he started working on developing electronic skins, “it was just neurons firing in my brain, there was nothing concrete about it,” and it took successive cycles of iteration and collaborating with some of the best talent around to transform a concept into reality.
“An idea doesn’t exist in isolation; the best ideas come from discussion and working with bright minds to make it better,” he says. “An idea is like a diamond in the rough — you need polishing to achieve an impact.”
The story first appeared in the November 2020 issue of A Magazine.