Robots aren't known for their gentle touch and thoughtful caress, but that could all be about to change. A team of engineers has developed a robotic finger that's capable of detecting textures—and it's more sensitive than a human hand.

The researchers, from the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering, have created a sensor which features a soft exterior skin, with a textured pattern which acts as a kind of finger print, that surrounds a liquid filling and central, bone-mimicking core.

When the finger moves across the surface of a piece of textured material, small vibrations are transmitted through the skin and liquid, and then detected by a hydrophone—basically, an underwater microphone—housed within the core. As well as detecting texture, the researchers claim it can also sense directional forces and temperature, too.

The team trained the robot finger to detect 117 materials, then got it to identify a small set of the samples as a test. It managed to get the correct answer 95 percent of the time, which is more accurate than a human hand, according to the team.

The development could, of course, form part of a new generation of artificial limbs that not only provide their users with dexterity, but the ability to feel again. That is science fiction turned reality, right there. [USC via GizMag]