The nervous-system inspired “electronic skin” can sense temperature, pressure, or humidity. It could be used to give prosthetic limbs a more complex sense of touch....

Humans are amazing: Your body is a sensing machine, thanks to the roughly 45 miles of nerves inside your body that connect your skin, brain, and muscles. A team from the University of Singapore has now used the body’s nervous system as inspiration to create a "skin" for robots that, one day, could improve their ability to detect and understand their environment.

How it works: Sheets of silicon were covered with 240 sensors that can pick up contact, pressure, temperature, and humidity. These are able to simultaneously transmit all of this data to a single decoder, and should still work when scaled up to 10,000 sensors, according to Benjamin Tee, the co-author of the study which was published in Science Robotics today.

What’s new: Flexible robotic “skin” has been tested in previous studies, but this system is the first to enable many sensors to feed back to a single receiver, allowing it to act as a whole system, rather than a bunch of individual electrodes, Tee said. Crucially, it still works even if the individual receptors are damaged, making it more resilient than previous iterations. 

What it could enable: Essentially, this would give robots something slightly like the human sense of touch, said Shan Luo, assistant professor of robotics at the University of Liverpool. A robot equipped with an electronic skin would be able to manipulate tools in a warehouse more dexterously, and could interact with humans more safely, he added. The team are now working with engineers and neuroscientists to help restore a sense of touch to prosthetic hands. This might "let people feel less of a sense of loss," says Tee.

The bigger picture: Robot dexterity was picked out as one of Tech Review’s 10 breakthrough technologies this year, and that’s because of the growing need to improve how robots navigate the physical world, especially if we’re going to work alongside machines, or let them help us with household chores.

Sign up here for our daily newsletter The Download to get your dose of the latest must-read news from the world of emerging tech.

Expand

Computing

After a massive hack in Bulgaria, the prime minister called the attacker a “wizard,” but cybersecurity experts said the security was simply inadequate. ...

The hack: A 20-year-old man was arrested in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Tuesday afternoon and charged with an unprecedented hack of the country’s tax authority, ending with the theft of sensitive personal records from nearly every adult in Bulgaria, according to local reports. The suspect, whose name is Kristiyan Boykov, according to Bulgarian media, faces up to eight years in prison. Police say others may have been involved.

The country’s officials have spent the week revealing and apologizing for the pillaging of Bulgaria’s National Revenue Agency (NRA) in June, Reuters reported. Personal and financial data for millions of taxpayers was leaked by email to local journalists. The data leak includes names, addresses, income and earnings information, and personal identification numbers, totaling 21 gigabytes and extending back over a decade.

In the email, the hacker described the Bulgarian government as corrupt. (Indeed, Bulgaria ranks as the most corrupt country in Europe, according to Transparency International.)

The reaction: Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called Boykov a “wizard” and said the country should hire people like him. Security professionals in Bulgaria are disputing the compliment and say the vulnerability never should have been exposed.

“It was alleged in the press that internal sources say the attack was an SQL injection,” said Bozhidar Bozhanov, an executive at the Bulgarian security company LogSentinel. “SQL injections are easy to detect and somewhat easy to exploit. Protecting from SQLi should have been done on many levels. First, in the software requirements. Second, during acceptance tests. And third, during operation by regularly scanning publicly facing services for vulnerabilities. Apparently none of this has been done.” 

The facts: There is a gap  between the hacker’s claims and what the Bulgarian government says happened. The facts are still being determined. 

The hacker claimed to have stolen data from over 5 million Bulgarians. The country’s entire population is around 7 million. Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov said 3% of the NRA’s databases were impacted. Although the number is in the millions, it’s not clear how many individuals Goranov believes are affected, but he said financial stability was not in danger.

Goranov apologized to Bulgarian citizens in front of the country’s parliament.

Vesselin Bontchev, a cybersecurity researcher and assistant professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, said the suspect left a mountain of digital traces that led to his arrest

“I can’t say the hacker was a ‘wizard,’” Bozhanov said. “If he indeed got caught so quickly, it means he was sloppy rather than a mastermind.”

The consequences: The scope of this attack is vast, and the number of unanswered questions remains significant.

The email the hacker sent to journalists with the leaked data came from a Russian email address. No one is quite sure what that means yet, but given the tension between Russia and Europe, especially in cyberspace, it’s a detail that’s attracted immediate attention.

Closer to home, the Bulgarians are looking at their government and wondering what went so badly wrong.

“We have to note that NRA is one of the most technically advanced administrations in Bulgaria,” Bozhanov said. “This issue may or may not be representative of the entire stack of technologies and services inside, but the fact that so much data was breached hints that few operational-security best practices were followed.”

The big open questions include who was behind the attack, and whether it was an individual, a group, or even a nation-state. Criminals, activists, and governments use hacked data in entirely different ways that can spell distinct forms of trouble for the Bulgarians affected by this breach.

One thing is clear: a reckoning has arrived for Bulgaria’s cybersecurity. Whether the government recognizes it or not, outside hackers certainly will.

Expand

TR 35

Innovators Under 35 | 2019

It’s part of our ethos that technology can and should be a force for good. In these profiles you’ll find people employing innovative methods to treat disease, to fight online harassment, and to create the next big battery breakthrough.