Want an extra body part?

A robotic thumb can help expand the capacity of the human hand.

We keep being told that we need to become more productive if we want to have better salaries. I have been to many seminars where this was discussed, and I have listened to hundreds of suggestions. But I was stumped this week when I read that the latest suggestion is to have a controllable prosthetic extra thumb fitted to one’s hand.


Researchers at Cambridge University say the robotic thumb can help expand the capacity of the human hand, from carrying multiple beverage glasses and shuffling playing cards to performing surgery. “We are also really excited about potential opportunities of using the thumb to enhance productivity in work settings, especially those that are relying on their hand’s manual dexterity in order to accomplish their work,” says Tamar Makin, a professor of cognitive neuroscience.


According to the researchers, the extra thumb could be used by manual labourers who are trying to solder a complicated kit or even by surgeons who have to negotiate between many instruments at the same time.
The research team says the thumb is controlled by a pressure sensor placed under each big toe or foot. Pressure from the right toe pulls the third thumb across the hand, while the pressure exerted with the left toe pulls the thumb up toward the fingers. The extent of the third thumb’s movement is proportional to the pressure applied. People who have tried it says it is easy to use.


The research team says the robotic device could also offer support to those who need it. Even though the thumb is designed for able-bodied people, one can easily envisage situations where people with disabilities could enjoy or benefit from the extra help of the thumb.


This is a different approach from that being developed at the University of Minnesota, where a team of researchers built a robotic hand that can be controlled by the user’s thoughts, via a brain chip. This may sound like a cool prop from some sci-fi flick but, in reality, mind-controllable robotic limbs are becoming a life-changing technology for people with amputations, including injured soldiers. They can also assist patients with paralysis and other kinds of neural and body-coordination-related disorders. 


These developments, however, raise many issues. An article in Nature by researchers at the University of Columbia has argued that the integration of AI and brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) could be used to manipulate human thinking and violate people’s privacy. As far as brain chips are concerned, many IT and bionics experts believe that there is a possibility that brain chips could be hacked and then be used against you. 


Imagine if someone were to remotely hack into the control of my chip. They could potentially steal private information, read or intercept some of my thoughts, or even make my robotic thumb do something I didn’t intend. Mind you, on the other hand, I might have an excuse for giving some politician the middle finger and blame it on having exerted too much pressure on the sensor!

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