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Thursday, June 13, 2024
Thursday June 13, 2024
Thursday June 13, 2024

Robotic third thumb from Cambridge University allows single-handed bottle opening

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Cambridge University researchers test a foot-controlled prosthetic thumb, demonstrating the potential for everyday tasks and future commercial use

Cambridge University has tested a prosthetic thumb that allows users to perform tasks like opening a bottle with one hand. This innovative device, controlled by pressure sensors under the feet, was invented by Dani Clode at the Royal College of Art and is now being developed further by researchers at Cambridge University. Dubbed “the third thumb,” this robotic appendage attaches to the opposite side of the palm from the user’s natural thumb.

The thumb operates through pressure sensors placed under the feet. Pressing the right foot moves the thumb across the hand while pressing the left foot moves it toward the fingers. The amount of pressure applied determines the grip strength, providing precise control over the thumb’s movements. This technology offers practical benefits in everyday situations, such as holding multiple items while performing a task. For example, users can hold a dog’s leash, a coffee cup, and a phone simultaneously while retrieving keys from a pocket.

Footage released by the university showcases the thumb’s versatility, demonstrating tasks such as opening a bottle single-handedly, holding an egg while cracking another, and carrying multiple wine glasses and a bottle. The researchers believe the thumb could also assist with intricate manual tasks like soldering or surgery.

The device was tested by 596 people of varying ages and sexes, who were asked to either move pegs into a basket or manipulate foam objects. Almost all participants successfully used the device within the first minute, with 98 per cent able to manipulate objects effectively. Only four participants struggled with the device due to fit issues or difficulty activating the sensors.

Older adults showed similar proficiency with the technology as younger participants, although performance declined with age. This finding highlights the potential of motor augmentation, a field focused on enhancing human capabilities through exoskeletons or robotic parts. Such technologies could significantly improve the quality of life for both healthy individuals and those with disabilities.

Cambridge University’s team remains in the research and development phase, aiming to refine the technology further before marketing the thumb. Lucy Dowdall, from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, emphasized the study’s success in demonstrating the feasibility of the technology. The team is focused on enhancing the thumb’s functionality, safety, and user adaptability, and using it as a model to explore augmentation in neuroscience research.

The trial results were published in the journal Science Robotics, indicating significant progress toward commercializing the robotic thumb. As researchers continue to refine the device, it holds promise for enhancing productivity and providing critical assistance in various fields.

Analysis :

The development of the third thumb by Cambridge University highlights the rapid advancements in robotics and motor augmentation. From a sociological perspective, the thumb offers the potential to enhance daily life, particularly for individuals who juggle multiple tasks. This technology can transform mundane activities, allowing users to perform tasks more efficiently and with greater ease. The ability to open a bottle single-handedly or carry multiple items simultaneously showcases its practical benefits.

Economically, the commercialization of the third thumb could open new markets within the prosthetics and robotics industries. As technology becomes more accessible, it could drive competition and innovation, leading to more affordable and versatile products. The potential for widespread use in various fields, such as healthcare, manufacturing, and everyday consumer applications, could stimulate economic growth and job creation in these sectors.

Politically, the development and commercialization of such technologies may raise questions about regulation and ethical considerations. Policymakers will need to address issues related to safety standards, user privacy, and the potential for misuse. The integration of robotic parts into human bodies also raises ethical questions about the extent to which technology should augment human capabilities and the implications for those who cannot afford such enhancements.

From a gender perspective, the third thumb could offer significant benefits across different demographics. Women, who often juggle multiple responsibilities at home and work, may find this technology particularly useful in managing their daily tasks. Additionally, the thumb’s ability to assist with fine motor skills could benefit individuals engaged in activities that require precision, such as sewing or crafting, which are often associated with traditional gender roles.

For marginalized communities and individuals with disabilities, the third thumb represents a significant advancement in assistive technology. It offers the potential to improve independence and quality of life for those with limited mobility or dexterity. By providing an extra appendage, the device can help individuals perform tasks that were previously challenging or impossible, thereby promoting inclusivity and equal opportunities.

In conclusion, the third thumb developed by Cambridge University represents a significant milestone in robotics and motor augmentation. Its potential applications in everyday life, healthcare, and various industries highlight its transformative capabilities. As researchers continue to refine the technology, the thumb promises to enhance productivity, improve quality of life, and stimulate economic growth. However, it also raises important ethical and regulatory questions that will need to be addressed as the technology advances.

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