Earlier this month, we heard about an MIT project in which test subjects were equipped with an extra set of robotic arms in order to help them perform tasks. While the technology is certainly intriguing, some people might find the concept of a four-armed cyborg to be a little ... much. If you're one of those people, then you might be more comfortable with another ongoing MIT project. It's just aimed at giving people two extra robotic fingers.
Developed by a team led by professor of engineering Harry Asada and grad student Faye Wu, the "supernumerary robotic fingers" extend from either side of the user's dominant hand, and are attached to a device that's worn around the wrist.
The idea behind them is that (among other things) they could allow users to perform tasks that usually require two hands, using only one. As an example, the extra fingers could grip a jar while the other fingers unscrewed its lid, or they could hold an envelope down while the others slit it open – both of which have already been demonstrated in the lab.
In order to control the robotic fingers, the researchers analyzed the ways in which movements of the hand's regular five fingers are coordinated. It was noted that in a variety of grasping tasks, the fingers always defaulted to a combination of two basic movements – coming together and twisting inwards.
This led to the development of an algorithm that monitors the positions of the five real fingers via a sensor-equipped glove, and moves the two extras accordingly. Essentially, it's getting them to do what the user would expect them to, if they really were part of the body.
So far, their functions are limited to the grasping and releasing of objects. Next, though, the team hopes to establish methods of controlling how much force they apply, and getting them to adapt to the different grasping "styles" of individual users.
Ultimately, it is hoped that the technology could be streamlined and miniaturized to the point that the extra fingers could lie folded up inside something like a bracelet, and pop out to assist the user as needed.
The supernumerary robotic fingers can be seen in action, in the following video.