The thought of humans having wings, tentacles or an extra arm may all seem rather unlikely.
But these scenarios could actually become reality in the next few decades, thanks to leaps in human augmentation.
Researchers have already designed a ‘Third Thumb’ controlled by foot movements, which allows the wearer to unscrew a bottle, peel a banana or thread a needle using just one hand.
Now, experts believe the thumb is just a first step towards larger, more dramatic additions to the human body.
Tamar Makin, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cambridge University, said the brain’s ability to adapt to an extra limb was ‘extraordinary’.
The thought of humans having wings (artist’s impression), tentacles or an extra arm may all seem rather unlikely. But these scenarios could actually become reality in the next few decades, thanks to leaps in human augmentation
But scaling the design up to larger augmentation devices comes with its own hurdles.
‘The big question is how do you control a body part that you’ve never had before?’ she said.
‘When we work with technology for substitution, like prosthetic limbs, the aim is pretty straightforward.
‘But, in augmentation, I want you to continue to use your body to its fullest capacity and on top of that, give you an extra body part.
‘We are also worried about what we call the resource reallocation problem – what if I’m stealing resources from the feet in order to give one to the hands?’
When asked whether it would be possible to design wings or even tentacles for human use, Professor Makin said: ‘Yes, from a technical perspective. The technologies are out there, we just need to scale them.
‘There are technological issues to deal with, for example you want it to be wearable, comfortable, it can’t be heavy and it can’t be plugged into an electric socket.
‘Control is the real issue. So wings are actually really simple because it’s just one degree of freedom – up and down.
‘But when you’re doing something more complicated, like a tentacle, we need a lot of control.
‘For example, if you want to reach your cup of coffee because it is far away, you want to use your tentacle.
‘But if you really need to focus because it’s a really complicated task, then just standing up would be less disruptive.’
When asked whether it would be possible to design wings or even tentacles for human use, Professor Makin said: ‘Yes, from a technical perspective. The technologies are out there, we just need to scale them’
Researchers have already designed a ‘Third Thumb’ controlled by foot movements, which allows the wearer to unscrew a bottle, peel a banana or thread a needle using just one hand
Her colleague Dani Clode was the brains behind the Third Thumb, which was first unveiled in 2017.
The robotic 3D printed digit is worn on the side of the hand opposite the user’s actual thumb.
The wearer controls it with pressure sensors attached to their feet, on the underside of the big toes, with a wireless connection linking the two.
For their study, 20 participants were trained to use the thumb over five days – for example using it to pick up multiple balls or wine glasses with one hand.
They learned the basics of the thumb very quickly and were even able to use it while distracted or blindfolded.
Writing in the journal Science Robotics, the team said participants also increasingly felt like the thumb was a part of their own body.
The robotic 3D printed digit is worn on the side of the hand opposite the user’s actual thumb
Before and after training, the researchers scanned participants’ brains. They discovered subtle but significant changes to the organisation of neural circuits that light up when we use our hands.
Professor Makin said: ‘Evolution hasn’t prepared us to use an extra body part, and we have found that to extend our abilities in new and unexpected ways, the brain will need to adapt the representation of the biological body.’
Ms Clode has also designed a robotic, coiling tentacle that acts as a prosthetic arm.
Named ‘Vine 2.0’, it has 26 individual vertebrae that are controlled by the wearer with pressure sensors and electronics in shoes.
Silvestro Micera, from the Sant’Anna School of Advanced studies in Pisa, is also working on a third arm that is attached to the body around the waist and controlled by breathing.
The researchers will discuss their advances in augmentation at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.
Implants that allow bionic arms to be operated by THOUGHT alone will be available in Europe within two years
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
Amputees could be able to use bionic arms with nothing but their thoughts within the next two years, Swedish researchers have said.
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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