Researchers at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China have taken inspiration from a jellyfish to develop a type of artificial skin that reacts to "pain" by glowing. This skin could be used in fields such as robotics and prosthetics, say its creators.

According to the team, the skin works by mimicking the pressure-sensing function of biological skin. Their research paper also mentions that artificial skins usually work "based on single response mode for pressure sensing". What that means is that artificial skins, while good at sensing if there is pressure, do not do well beyond a certain pressure threshold. They are like switches that register pressure, but cannot really feel how much of it is being applied.

Artificial skins easily get damaged because of the lack of sensitivity beyond a certain point. Biological skin, however, can not only detect the presence of a touch, but can actually feel when the pressure increases or decreases by using pain receptors. If translated to robots and prosthetics, it could serve as a more reliable way for machines to handle sensitive operations such as surgeries that are delicate and require many years of training for humans.

The team took inspiration from the Atolla jellyfish, which is a kind of jellyfish that emits bright flashes of light when under threat.

To create this illusion of pain sensitivity, the team developed a material that can produce an electric signal when stretched by interlaying silver wires within the stretchy skin. They added a layer of phosphors – particles that can luminesce – between layers of the skin, according to a report in Engadget.

The team was able to create a skin that readily displayed how much "pain" it is going through with a wide range of pressure. The pressure sensitivity and the way it lights up can be fine-tuned to mimic the way humans feel pain. The skin can actually create a visual representation of pain, notes the report.

This skin opens up potential for human-robot interfaces that were until now limited in scope, notes the report.

The study is published in the journal American Chemical Society (ACS).