While the human hand, with four fingers and opposable thumb, is pretty darn awesome, it still falls woefully short when it comes to some tasks — such as opening a soda bottle or peeling a banana. MIT, which is obviously a firm believer that we can and should enhance humans as far as physically possible beyond our evolutionarily bestowed capabilities, has a solution: a wrist-mounted robot that gives you two extra fingers. With the “7 Finger Robot” equipped, you can grasp a soda bottle and turn the cap at the same time. According to the MIT engineer who led the project, Harry Asada, some users might even begin to perceive the robotic helping fingers as part of their body – “like a tool you have been using for a long time, you feel the robot as an extension of your hand.”
Perhaps the coolest thing about MIT’s 7 Finger Robot is that it’s completely autonomous. “You do not need to command the robot, but simply move your fingers naturally. Then the robotic fingers react and assist your fingers,” says Asada. As you can imagine, getting two additional robot fingers to work in perfect biomechanical harmony isn’t easy. To develop the algorithm, the Asada and his team spent a lot of time looking at the physiology of of human hand gestures — in particular, the highly coordinated motion of grasping. It turns out that, while we grab things in different ways, they all fundamentally involve bringing our fingers together, and then twisting them inwards. Like any group of self-respecting engineers, they then wondered: If we can grasp with five fingers, is there any reason we couldn’t also grasp with seven?
Anyway, to cut a long story short, Asada attached a couple of prototype supernumerary appendages to his graduate student Faye Wu’s wrist, and found that yes — two additional fingers really can help you grasp things in different and better ways. From this testing data they devised an algorithm that allows the 7 Finger Robot to move its fingers to the “right” position to be helpful to the human — i.e. when you move your hand to grasp an apple, the robot has already moved its fingers so that it’s ready to grab the apple as well. Moving forward, Asada and Wu want to tweak the algorithm so that it works better with a wider range of objects. “With an object that looks small but is heavy, or is slippery, the posture would be the same, but the force would be different, so how would it adapt to that?” says Wu.
While the 7 Finger Robot, much like the myriad exoskeletons that we’ve written about, has obvious applications for disabled people, let’s take a moment and think about the transhumanist ramifications. In this case, for example, why stop at just two additional fingers? Would an eight-finger hand be better? How about 10 fingers? Would someone with 10 fingers be a better chef? Or pianist? Or lover? Or parent? If we have the option of being faster and more dextrous and more capable, why shouldn’t we do it?
Transhumanism is all about enhancing humans to the next level — so that, eventually, an external observer might not see humans and transhumans as quite the same species. It isn’t quite as simple as making stronger, faster, more intelligent humans, of course — there are a whole host of thorny issues and ethical pitfalls to consider, too. But for more on that, you should read our featured story about transhumanism.