Watch pianists fitted with a robotic thumb adjust to playing with 11 digits in one hour
[August 27, 2021: Ryan Morrison]
Pianists that have been fitted with a third robotic thumb are able to adjust their playing style to suit their new 11 digits in just an hour, according to researchers (CREDIT: Faisal Lab)
Pianists who have been fitted with a third robotic thumb are able to adjust their playing style to suit their new 11 digits in just an hour, according to researchers.
To determine how well human motor control capabilities cope with augmented limbs, a team from Imperial College London strapped a robot thumb to a pianist.
The 'third thumb' is strapped to a user's hand next to the little finger and controlled by electrical signals generated when the pianist moves their foot.
To test how useful this extra limb is, the team, led by Aldo Faisal, recruited six experienced pianists and six people who didn't play the piano.
They found that the volunteer pianists were able to learn to play the piano with 11 digits rather than 10 within an hour of being shown how to use the extra thumb regardless of their experience with the piano itself.
Dr Faisal says the findings mean that we aren't limited to using an extra robotic digit for tasks we are already familiar with, and can use it even in unfamiliar tasks.
Work started on the artificial thumb in 2015 by the Imperial College London team and testing has now begun to see how well people control it.
'From ancient myths, such as the many-armed goddess Shiva to modern comic book characters, augmentation with supernumerary limbs has captured our common imagination, the authors wrote.
'In real life, Human Augmentation is emerging as the result of the confluence of robotics and neurotechnology.'
The issue Faisal and colleagues wanted to investigate was what level of control people would have over the extra appendage.
Piano was one of the ideal test platforms for the thumb, according to the team, as it requires a number of fine motor skills.
They found that the volunteer pianists were able to learn to play the piano with 11 digits rather than 10 within an hour of being shown how to use the extra thumb regardless of their experience with the piano itself. (CREDIT: Faisal Lab)
'It's important to show this technology works with fine motor skills because it shows that you're actually controlling the movement and not just sort of jerking it around,' Faisal said.
The first part of the experiment saw the team strap the thumb to an experienced piano player in an unconstrained pilot experiment.
They used the device to freely play the piano using 11 fingers, controlled via foot movements, and within one hour of wearing it they were doing so effectively.
Researchers then updated the interface for use with six experienced piano players and six inexperienced players.
Researchers monitored motor coordination while playing the piano with and without the extra thumb, finding that performing the task with robotic augmentation requires additional levels of complexity, but not so much it can't be overcome.
They found that regardless of experience playing the piano, volunteers were able to manipulate the keys using the extra thumb in an hour.
Their ability to use it depended on their dexterity level and timing skills rather than any existing skills with the piano, the team found.
The same team is now developing a new prototype that would give humans a third hand, rather than just a third thumb.
'Supernumerary robots are a cutting-edge technology which has already demonstrated its great capability in assisting people with physical limitations,' Virginia Ruiz Garate at the University of the West of England told reporters.
'This robot shows how this human augmentation can reach even further, making its way into cultural and broader domains of daily life.'
The findings are published in the preprint server bioRxiv.
Amputees could be able to use bionic arms with nothing but their thoughts within the next two years, Swedish researchers have said.
Three people in Sweden use an implant system that allows amputees to use a bionic arm with just their thoughts. Dr Max Ortiz Cataln at Chalmers University of Technology hopes the technology can be expanded to Europe. The implant system anchors the prosthesis to the skeleton in the stump of the amputated limb. (CREDIT: PA)
An implant system that allows the use of a bionic arm without the need for any supporting equipment is already available in Sweden.
Now the team behind it are working toward getting European certification to help more people.
Three Swedes who have had an amputation use the technology, which can connect to any arm prosthesis that is commercially available.
Dr Max Ortiz Catalan, an associate professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, said that their prosthesis could be a clinically viable replacement for a lost arm.
He told the PA news agency: 'People in Sweden can have this technology now.
'We were working to ramp up the production before the pandemic began.
'We are aiming to have it CE marked soon, within two years, and once it is CE marked, it can be available in Europe as a product.'
Two of the three patients involved in their clinical trial have been using their bionic arms for around three years, while the third participant has been using his artificial limb for seven years.
A new functionality - the sensation of touch - has recently been added to all the three prosthetic arms.
Dr Ortiz Catalan said that the implant system, which anchors the prosthesis to the skeleton in the stump of the amputated limb, is stable and can be used for long periods of time without any intervention from the scientists.
He said: 'The real breakthrough here is that this neuromusculoskeletal interface, as we call it, allows the artificial limb to be connected to the body.
'And when you have that intimate connection between the technology and biology, you can have a better control and establish sensory feedback.'
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