If there’s one thing pop culture, video games, and my own imagination have taught me, it’s that augmenting your body with robotics is going to be insane. games like Deus Ex (opens in a new tab)– which is still as good today with the right mods— assured me that if I want to run faster, see better, or regenerate my health, boosts are absolutely the way to go. As someone who has a body that’s less than kind to her most of the time, I’m here for the cyborg revolution, and she might be closer than we think.
The Guardian (opens in a new tab) recently spoke with researchers working in the field of cognitive neuroscience at the MRC cognition and brain unit at the University of Cambridge, about the integration of robotic parts into the human body. They believe incorporating these increases could not only help human productivity immensely, but could be just on the horizon.
You may have heard of the study a few years ago where a designer working with the University of Cambridge, Dani Clode (opens in a new tab)Created a 3D printed thumb (opens in a new tab). It was an incredible test of the technology, as the extra thumb could be attached to almost any user’s hand. It uses motors on the wrist, as well as sensors on the feet, which was extremely intuitive.
Tests reported that 98% of subjects were able to effectively use the thumb to move objects within one minute of the trial. Clode also works on amazing artist prostheses like this beautiful vine arm (opens in a new tab) listed on the alternative member project (opens in a new tab) for those after something different. All of this gives me enormous optimism for my future prehensile tail.
Now Tamar Makin, professor of cognitive neuroscience in the MRC’s Cognition and Brain Unit at the University of Cambridge, is looking to expand the approach for more than just an extra inch.
“If you want an extra arm while cooking in the kitchen so you can stir soup while chopping veggies, you might have the option to wear and independently control an extra robotic arm,” she said.
The idea is to give people greater functionality than before, regardless of their current abilities and circumstances. “If you’re missing a limb, instead of trying to replace that limb, why not raise your intact hand so you can do more?” Makin explained, but that’s far from the only use case.
“We spoke with a surgeon [who] was really interested in holding his camera while he was doing shoulder surgery, rather than his assistant holding his camera,” Clode said. “He wanted to have full control of the tools he uses with two hands while holding this camera and being able to manipulate it as well.”
One of the greatest concerns is the degradation of any current usefulness of the body. While Clode’s incredible extra inch is a prime example, it also raises questions that require further testing. When repurposing these foot movements to communicate a thumb, we must ensure that we do not take away any of the feet’s natural abilities from the body in the process.
“We’re doing a lot of research right now to see what it does to your nervous system if you start reclaiming your toes to become an extra finger – how much [does] does it affect your ability to use your toes as a toe? Makine said.
These new integrations also aim to be more than a 3D-printed thumb-mountable wearable body part. Instead, researchers including Tamar Makin are looking to implement real robotic parts into the body, opting for what will hopefully be a more natural feel. “We want something we could control [very] precisely without us having to articulate what exactly we want,” she said.
As usual with all fun news, there’s no sign of when this tech will actually be ready and available to the masses. It’s still going to be a long time before I can truly live out my cyberpunk dreams, but hopefully all this work will mean it’s a little safer than strapping down to a Great Power Sandevistan (opens in a new tab) And suffer the consequences (opens in a new tab).