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Isaac Asimov's first law of robotics is clear: A robot may not injure a human being.

Whoops.

In a robotics lab in Slovenia, a powerful robot has been punching a group of volunteers in the arm over and over again to test tolerance to pain. Each member of the group was hit 18 times at a variety of impact energies and asked to rank how much each strike hurt on a scale from "painless" to "unbearable." Borut Povse believes the research will help future robots, as they increasingly interact with humans, to adhere to Asimov's rule.

The team will continue their tests using an artificial human arm to model the physical effects of far more severe collisions. Ultimately, the idea is to cap the speed a robot should move at when it senses a nearby human, to avoid hurting them. Povše presented his work at the IEEE's Systems, Man and Cybernetics conference in Istanbul, Turkey, this week.

"Determining the limits of pain during robot-human impacts this way will allow the design of robot motions that cannot exceed these limits," says Sami Haddadin of DLR, the German Aerospace Centre in Wessling, who also works on human-robot safety. Such work is crucial, he says, if robots are ever to work closely with people. Earlier this year, in a nerve-jangling demonstration, Haddadin put his own arm on the line to show how smart sensors could enable a knife-wielding kitchen robot to stop short of cutting him. 

Read the full story at New Scientist.

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