If robots were to feel and react to pain, what would happen?

Pain is a distressing feeling caused by intense stimuli. Often, the debilitating and excruciating kind of pain hinders a person from performing his job well and reduces the quality of life.

This is something that separates robots from humans — an advantage that many companies make the most of for the sake of production.

Robots don't feel pain, and so they can accomplish goals in dangerous environments and tasks that range from being slightly unpleasant to full-blown fatal for a human.

However, although emotionless and painless robots appear to be more efficient, developers in Hannover, Germany believe otherwise.

Inside Out

Researcher Johannes Kuehn and Professor Sami Haddadin of Leibniz University created an artificial nervous system that would teach robots to feel pain and quickly react when sensing potential damage.

In order to make it happen, Kuehn and Haddadin fitted a BioTac fingertip to a robotic arm. Their model was based on gathered data from human pain research, which helped them decide how much pain the robot should feel for a certain reaction.

Under light levels of pain, the robot experienced mild discomfort and withdrew until the sensation was over. Under moderate pain, the robot retracted quicker and at a greater distance. Under severe pain, the robot turned into passive mode.

Why Teaching Robots To Feel Pain Is Okay

The idea of inducing an artificial robot system may seem counterintuitive, but Kuehn says doing so is important in the same way that it is good for humans to feel pain.

"Pain is a system that protects us," says Kuehn. "When we evade from the source of pain, it helps us not get hurt."

So when robots can feel and react to pain, they will become smart enough to avoid it. The more dangerous the robot registers the threat to be, the faster it will retract and avoid the source of hazard.

The research notes that this phenomenon is evident in people with congenital analgesia, or the genetic disorder that renders them unable to feel pain even when they are injured. Steven Pete, a resident of Washington state in the United States, describes in an article posted on the BBC how it is like being born without ever feeling pain.

Additionally, Kuehn and Haddadin say humans working alongside robots that feel pain, especially those in heavy machinery, will be protected around them.

The details of the projects were presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Sweden.

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