If there’s one thing pop culture, videogames, and my own imagination has taught me it’s that augmenting your body with robotics is going to be sick as hell. Games like Deus Ex (opens in new tab)—which is still great today with the right mods—have assured me that if I want to be running faster, seeing better, or regenerating health, augments are absolutely the way to go. As someone who has a body that is less than kind to them at most times, I’m here for the cyborg revolution, and it might be closer than we think.
The Guardian (opens in new tab) recently spoke with researchers working with cognitive neuroscience at the MRC cognition and brain unit at Cambridge University, about the integration of robotic parts to the human body. They believe the integration of these augments could not only help human productivity immensely but may be just over the horizon.
You may have heard of the study from a few years back where a designer working with Cambridge University, Dani Clode (opens in new tab), created a 3D-printed thumb (opens in new tab). This was an incredible test of the technology, as the extra thumb could be attached to almost any user’s hand. It uses motors in the wrist, as well as sensors on the feet which was wildly intuitive.
The tests reported that 98% of subjects were able to effectively use the thumb to move objects within a minute of trying. Clode also works on some amazing artist prosthetics like this beautiful Vine Arm (opens in new tab) featured on the alternative limb project (opens in new tab) for those after something different. This all gives me huge optimism for my future prehensile tail.
Now, Tamar Makin, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the MRC cognition and brain unit at Cambridge University, is looking to expand on the approach for more than just an extra thumb.
“If you want an extra arm while you’re cooking in the kitchen so you can stir the soup while chopping the vegetables, 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, no matter what their current ability and situation is. “If you’re missing a limb, instead of trying to replace that limb, why don’t we augment your intact hand to allow you to do more with it?” explained Makin, but this is far from the only use case.
“We spoke with a surgeon [who] was really interested in holding his camera whilst he’s doing shoulder surgery, rather than his assistant holding his camera,” said Clode. “He wanted to be in full control of the tools that he’s using with the two hands whilst also holding that camera and being able to manipulate that as well.”
One of the biggest concerns is about degrading any current usefulness from the body. While Clode’s amazing extra thumb is a great example, it also raises questions that need further testing. When repurposing those foot movements to communicate a thumb, we need to make sure we’re not taking away any of the body’s natural feet abilities in the process.
“We’re doing a lot of research at the moment to see what it does to your nervous system if you start reappropriating your toes to become an extra finger—how much [does] it affects your ability to use your toes as a toe?” Makin said.
These new integrations are also aiming to be more than a mountable wearable body part like the 3D printed thumb. Instead, researchers including Tamar Makin are looking to implement true robotic parts into the body, going for what will hopefully be a more natural feel. “We want something that we’d be able to control [very] precisely without us having to articulate what it is exactly that we want,” she said.
As per usual with all the fun sounding news, there’s no sign of when this tech will actually be ready and available to the masses. It’s going to be a long way off before I can truly live my cyberpunk dreams, but hopefully all this work will mean it’s a bit safer than strapping into a high-powered Sandevistan (opens in new tab) and suffering the consequences (opens in new tab).