Morphological computation of perception and action

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Design Engineering

Abstract

Living beings share the same embodiment for sensing and action. For instance, the spindle sensors that provide the feeling of a joint angle and speed are embedded on the muscles that actuate this joint. The tendon sensors that provide the feeling of force too are directly involved in actuation of the joint. Do the function of these sensors change when the muscles are activated to take action? Does the co-activation of antagonistic muscles play a role not only in actuation, but also in perception? This project will investigate these questions through targeted experiments with human participants and controllable stiffness soft robots that provide greater access to internal variables.

Recent experiments we have conducted on localising hard nodules in soft tissues using soft robotic probes have shown that tuning the stiffness of the probe can maximise information gain of perceiving the hard nodule. We have also noticed that human participants use distinct force-velocity modulation strategies in the same task of localising a hard nodule in a soft tissue using the index finger. This raises the question as to whether we can find quantitative criteria to control the internal impedance of a soft robotic probe to maximise the efficacy of manipulating a soft object to perceive its hidden properties like in physical examination of a patient's abdomen.

In this project, we will thus use carefully designed probing tasks done by both human participants and a soft robotic probe with controllable stiffness to access various levels of measurable information such as muscle co-contraction, change of speed and force, to test several hypotheses about the role of internal impedance in perception and action. Finally, we will use a human-robot collaborative physical examination task to test the effectiveness of a new soft robotic probe with controllable stiffness together with its stiffness and behaviour control algorithms. We will design and fabricate the novel soft robotic probe so that we can control the stiffness of its soft tissue in which sensors will be embedded to obtain embodied haptic perception. We will also design and fabricate a novel soft abdomen phantom with controllable stiffness internal organs to conduct palpation experiments. The innovation process of the above two designs - the novel probe and the abdomen phantom - will be done in collaboration with three leading industrial partners in the respective areas. The new insights will make a paradigm shift in the way we design soft robots that can share the controllable stiffness embodiment for both perception and action in a number of applications like remote medical interventions, robotic proxies in shopping, disaster response, games, museums, security screening, and manufacturing.

Planned Impact

Academic impact: We will make academic impacts in three major areas in addition to extended impacts in groups of identified areas. First the findings in morphological computation (how the mechanical circuits of the embodiment contributes to the computation of perception and action, and their mapping from one to another) will shed new light on how the stiffness of a shared embodiment between perception and action can help to improve information gain in perception while improving the robustness of action. This will take research in soft robotics in a new path, because so far the attention has predominantly being on the role of embodiment in action. We will also contribute new technologies in soft grippers and probes that can regulate the stiffness of the embodiment to suit the task specific perception and action requirements. This project will also make new findings in human motor control related to the common mediation of muscle co-contraction in perception and action. So far there has been a heavy emphasis on the central nervous system as a direct mediator of perception and action, and the computational motor control community has given full credit of motor control to the brain. This project will challenge that norm with experiments done to find the role of indirect involvement of the central nervous system to regulate perception and action through joint impedance control.

Other scientific engagements: In addition to the main areas of scientific contributions, we will bring together a diverse group of scientists in biology and soft robotics to explore questions about the possible projections from neural based computational plasticity to regulate a common embodiment to improve perception and action on long-term morphological adaptation to reduce the burden on the central nervous system to perform repetitive computational tasks. Moreover, the engagement with the telecommunication research community will help us to make an impact on the future "haptic internet" where we will have efficient communication protocols to perform remote physical examinations with real-time haptic feedback with guarantees on safety.

Industrial and clinical impact: There is an increasing demand for soft robotic grippers and probes in surgery, agriculture, remote healthcare, museums, tele-shopping, games, and aviation. The scientific contributions to introduce new ways to improve perception and action through a shared controllable stiffness embodiments together with novel ways to design and fabricate soft grippers/probes for physical examination of soft tissue will make a disruptive shift in the practice of the soft robotics industry.

Social impact: The project will contribute to a broad social discussion on how soft robots can be used in our daily lives as well as to understand our own bodies through engaging students and robot enthusiasts in scientific exhibitions, information on our websites, and meetings in the London Robotics Network.

Impact on students and RAs: The postgraduate students associated with this project and the directly employed RAs will have the opportunity to teach and conduct public engagement workshops. We have budgeted for their travel to major international conferences to promote their visibility and to facilitate networking. Following our previous experiences, we have planned to integrate technological innovations in this project to formal teaching practice of robotics, neuroscience, and general practitioner training.

Open access data: Following positive experiences of releasing open access data based on previous EPSRC funded projects, we will release anonymised physical examination behavioural data with proper guides to use them for research purposes. This will engage a broad academic community interested in related research areas.

Publications

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Cotugno G (2017) The Role of the Thumb: Study of Finger Motion in Grasping and Reachability Space in Human and Robotic Hands in IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics: Systems

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He L (2018) Granular Jamming Based Controllable Organ Design for Abdominal Palpation. in Conference proceedings : ... Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Annual Conference

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Herzig N (2018) A Variable Stiffness Robotic Probe for Soft Tissue Palpation in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters

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Nanayakkara V (2017) The Role of Morphology of the Thumb in Anthropomorphic Grasping: A Review in Frontiers in Mechanical Engineering

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
EP/N03211X/1 11/07/2016 31/01/2017 £307,919
EP/N03211X/2 Transfer EP/N03211X/1 01/02/2017 10/07/2019 £263,166
 
Description 1) Stiffness control in a soft robotic probe plays a key role in the haptic information gain by its tendon sensors. This also explains why humans control the finger stiffness during soft tissue examination. 2) Haptic perception and muscle activation are inter-linked. In the case of haptic based guiders, the same amount of leftward and rightward perturbations won't be felt equally by the follower. In the case of medical examination of patients, these insights into how action and perception are coupled will allow us to train medical students better. 5. The tissue abnormality detection process involves first depending mainly on fingertip tactile sensors for search area reduction and then using tendon level haptic feedback to explore details such as the size and the depth of an abnormality.
6. Granular jamming with positive pressure is a viable method to both produce tumor conditions in a robotic abdominal phantom and to use them as sensors to measure palpation forces and positions.
Exploitation Route 1) Further develop the soft robotic patient with more functionality like breathing, controllable internal organs, and a face that can express pain, as a tool for medical training and to collect examination related data from general practitioners, 2) Extend the soft robotic probe for soft tissue palpation as a tool in the food industry in addition to healthcare applications.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://thrish.org/motion-morphological-computation-of-perception-and-action
 
Description A soft robotic patient is being developed for medical training purposes. The first version was tested with General Practitioners on 22nd February 2018. We further did a workshop in the annual conference of the Royal College of General Practitioners held in Glasgow on 4th August 2018 to engage the broad physician community and they expressed much hope in a future functional robotic patient for training purposes.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Healthcare
Impact Types Societal,Economic

 
Description 2017 Cambridge Workshop on Soft Robotics, Morphological Computation, and Embodied Intelligence 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This was a 3-day resident workshop to brainstorm ideas and latest advancements in Soft Robotics, Morphological Computation, and Embodied Intelligence in several laboratories in UK. PhD students in my lab got an opportunity to present their work to an audience of key research labs in this area in UK and share thoughts.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://thrish.org/2017/2017-cambridge-workshop-on-soft-robotics-morphological-computation-and-embod...
 
Description A hands on testing session with General Practitioners 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In this workshop, General Practitioners examined our soft robotic patient that could present illness conditions like liver abnormalities, and they experienced how the new wrist-mounted haptic feedback system can be used to feel the forces experienced by a remote robotic soft probe examining a soft tissue. A unique feature in this remote examination was that the doctors could control the stiffness of the remote robotic probe by turning a handle. They reported that the stiffness control of the remote soft robotic probe makes a difference in the way they feel a nodule in the remote soft tissue. Moreover, they gave valuable feedback to improve the soft robotic patient and the remote haptic feedback system.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://twitter.com/thrishlab/status/966815438838665216
 
Description BBC Radio 4 Bottom Line panel discussion on robots 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Are white collar workers under threat from the new robotic workforce? Manufacturing companies have been replacing production line workers with robots for years, but as the technology becomes more advanced, they are being increasingly used in healthcare, law firms and HR departments. So is the white collar worker under threat? Evan Davis talks to three guests, a roboticist, an Artificial Intelligence consultancy worker and the CEO of a hotel chain who is already using robots in his business.

GUESTS

Thrishantha Nanayakkara - Roboticist, Imperial College

Dr. Michael Chui - Partner, IT and innovation, McKinsey Global Institute

Hubert Viriot - CEO, Yotel.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08v8p14?ns_mchannel=social&
 
Description Creative Quarter 2017 at Imperial College South Kensington campus 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Creative Quarter is a day of free events in South Kensington offering thousands of students between the ages of 13 and 19 the chance to explore work in the creative and STEM industries and careers. At Imperial students could find inspiration through interactive exhibits, demonstration lectures and a series of smaller career insight sessions where they get to meet some of the scientists working at Imperial and hear what it is like to be a science professional.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://thrish.org/2017/thrishlab-at-imperial-creative-quarter-2017/2513
 
Description Imperial festival 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact What started as a modest pilot project in 2012 to explore how Imperial College London might share its research with more people in new ways has now evolved into the College's flagship public event. In 2017 more than 20,000 public and alumni visitors descended on Imperial's South Kensington campus to enjoy the interactive stands, workshops, tours, talks and performances on offer.

Some lovely reviews from our friends in the media support our belief that the Festival has grown into a great weekend of fun and learning for all the family - with time Timeout London describing it as an "an equation for a good time", the Guardian saying it was "a fascinating event" and the Londonist observing that "whoever programmed this glorious beast must have used hyper-dimensional graph paper".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://thrish.org/2017/our-exhibits-in-the-imperial-robotics-festival-2017/2344
 
Description Plenary Keynote speech at IEEE PIMRC-2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact IEEE PIMRC is said to be the largest IEEE mobile communications conference sponsored by top communications companies. Their purpose of inviting me was to know more about how living beings survive in uncertain environments that require fast responses with a central nervous system (CNS) known to have very slow communication fibres (a signal from fingertip to brain takes about 120msec). Most rapid responses cannot be explained using such slow communication pathways.

My talk using robotic experimental evidence on the role of fast bodily computers (morphological computers) that work in conjunction with the CNS helped to challenge the conventional notion that the slow CNS is entirely responsible for intelligent behavior. This aligned well with the latest trends in 5G communication where field experts argue that some new decentralized solutions are required to go beyond the current bottlenecks.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://pimrc2017.ieee-pimrc.org/program/keynotes/
 
Description Talk at Science Museum Lates 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In the science museum lates, adult general public gets a chance to interact with various invited speakers and exhibitors to discuss latest advancements in different fields. In this talk, I explained our latest advancements in the EPSRC funded MOTION project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/see-and-do/lates