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posted by hubie on Wednesday February 01 2023, @10:09AM   Printer-friendly
from the ethernet-over-spinal-cord dept.

Unused bandwidth in neurons can be tapped to control extra limbs:

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that's attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he's fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman's Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today's technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we're tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

[...] Two practical questions stand out: Can we achieve neural control of extra robotic limbs concurrently with natural movement, and can the system work without the user's exclusive concentration? If the answer to either of these questions is no, we won't have a practical technology, but we'll still have an interesting new tool for research into the neuroscience of motor control. If the answer to both questions is yes, we may be ready to enter a new era of human augmentation. For now, our (biological) fingers are crossed.


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  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by RamiK on Wednesday February 01 2023, @12:05PM (3 children)

    by RamiK (1813) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @12:05PM (#1289615)

    What could you do with an extra limb?

    I bought one of these [aliexpress.com] a while ago for flipping sheets while playing. They have a micro-controller that emulate a keyboard so you just program them with https://github.com/rgerganov/footswitch [github.com] (or the manufacturer's windows app but I haven't used it...) to do Page Up / Page Down so after the programming it's just a plug&play windows/linux/android/mac keyboard that doesn't require any special drivers.

    I guess Emacs users can get one for each foot and live the dream.

    --
    compiling...
    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by driverless on Wednesday February 01 2023, @12:40PM (2 children)

      by driverless (4770) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @12:40PM (#1289626)

      I wouldn't mind a third, um, "leg", thanks.

      • (Score: 2) by DannyB on Wednesday February 01 2023, @03:09PM (1 child)

        by DannyB (5839) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @03:09PM (#1289649) Journal

        It would have the drawbacks of most prosthetic limbs. Requires charging. Maintenance. Has no feeling or feedback. Specialized and expensive.

        --
        If you have one of those computers that makes it difficult to get work done, use Hyper-V to install Linux.
        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:39PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:39PM (#1289676)

          But it would impress the guys at the gym. Order me one too!

  • (Score: 2) by looorg on Wednesday February 01 2023, @12:11PM (4 children)

    by looorg (578) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @12:11PM (#1289617)

    Why only a third arm? Why not a fourth or a fifth or why not just go total squidboy (not sure how many that would be but 8-10 something). Just imagine how much you could get done if only one arm helped so much.

    Also while neural connection so we can control the arm could be nice I'm sure this is just lacking AI, it could control the hand for you. For simple tasks you might not need actual control, like patting yourself on the back for the all extra arms you installed or whatever. Clearly if they want funding for these projects they need some AI attached to it.

    In some regard I would prefer to just have a exoskeleton structure of some kind that you stepped into and used and then stepped out of when not needed any longer. Like an Alien(s) Powerloader, those already exists to some degree don't they? Not very practical for office work but still, will you really write better code with a third arm? Is that so you can code with two arms and have a coffee with the third?

    This extra hand/arms/limb thing has been a recurring news for multiple years now. I still don't see it becoming a thing. Clearly it's possible but the adaptation of it seems very low. No mass-market adaptation as of yet.
    https://soylentnews.org/article.pl?sid=17/05/30/2010251 [soylentnews.org]

    • (Score: 2) by aafcac on Wednesday February 01 2023, @02:04PM (2 children)

      by aafcac (17646) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @02:04PM (#1289635)

      Part of it is finding a good place for more arms. And part of it is that many people already have trouble using the ones they've got in a coordinated way.

      • (Score: 2) by looorg on Wednesday February 01 2023, @02:23PM (1 child)

        by looorg (578) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @02:23PM (#1289640)

        That shouldn't be to much of an issue. Look at all those images of various Indian deities, they have arms all over. Usually they attach a few extras in the same place as normal arms go (over or under) and the rest appear to be attached to the back like some kind of spiderlegs/arms. I guess it will be harder to sleep on your back then if you can't unattach them so you'll be sleeping on your side or stomach or you can perhaps use a few of the arms to be "awake" to hang around like some monkey while the rest of you sleep. So if they can just attach them I'm sure there is a away. Would I want them? No. As noted I think two are working out quite good as it is. I don't see a need for a third one.

        Perhaps if we attached third arms to babies they can learn to use it "normally" when they grow up but to attach them to adults might just be weird and wonky.

        • (Score: 2) by aafcac on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:49PM

          by aafcac (17646) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:49PM (#1289680)

          animals that have more than 4 limbs tend to have no endoskeleton for a reason. It's a lot harder to attach additional arms if you have to worry about connecting them in to the central nervous system or the bone structure of a skeleton. I'd imagine that they would probably be able to attach something at the hips, but more than that would have to either be pretty small, or awkwardly positioned.

    • (Score: 2) by mcgrew on Wednesday February 01 2023, @06:13PM

      by mcgrew (701) <publish@mcgrewbooks.com> on Wednesday February 01 2023, @06:13PM (#1289697) Homepage Journal

      Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom [mcgrewbooks.com]

      Except in that book, it wasn't robotics, it was genetic engineering.

      --
      mcgrewbooks.com mcgrew.info nooze.org
  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01 2023, @12:20PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01 2023, @12:20PM (#1289621)

    I can barely use two arms efficiently as it is

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01 2023, @01:12PM (2 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01 2023, @01:12PM (#1289628)

    TRILLIAN:
    We picked those couple of guys up in sec- Zaphod! Please take your hand off me. And the other one. Thank you. And the other one.

    ZAPHOD:
    I grew that one specially for you Trillian, you know that. Took me six months but it was worth every minute.

    • (Score: 2) by choose another one on Wednesday February 01 2023, @02:15PM (1 child)

      by choose another one (515) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @02:15PM (#1289637)

      Well that's a starter for ten, but with the musical reference in TFS in mind and wanting to go out on one further (additional) limb, I thought someone would have mentioned the Hydrogen Sonata...

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:55PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:55PM (#1289687)

        Not as hard to play as the Hydrogen Sonata (per the wiki entry on the book), but suitably named, try "The Comet is Coming" -- live in LA a few years ago,

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbsK1_goV_0 [youtube.com]

        One of many amazing bands from the current jazz scene in London, UK.

  • (Score: 1) by Brymouse on Wednesday February 01 2023, @02:05PM (1 child)

    by Brymouse (11315) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @02:05PM (#1289636)

    Baby's arm clutching an apple!

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:44PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:44PM (#1289678)

      Mind she doesn't choke on that!

  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by Immerman on Wednesday February 01 2023, @02:39PM (2 children)

    by Immerman (3985) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @02:39PM (#1289642)

    Two practical questions stand out: Can we achieve neural control of extra robotic limbs concurrently with natural movement, and can the system work without the user's exclusive concentration?

    I believe the first question has already been answered in the affirmative for monkeys, so probably will be for us as well.

    As for exclusive concentration... I'm not even sure what exactly that's supposed to mean. "While you're doing other things?" That seems really likely considering the brain is a massively parallel computation engine, and monkeys have already demonstrated that they can repurpose some of an arm's neural circuitry to move a robotic arm to play lab games while interdependently using their real arm.

    Granted, some aspects of monkey cognition completely blow us out of the water, but it seems unlikely that controlling cybernetic enhancements would be one of those.

    • (Score: 2) by aafcac on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:53PM (1 child)

      by aafcac (17646) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:53PM (#1289683)

      The question is how much cranial capacity do we want to give up just to have another arm or two in that case. The physical space that the brain is located in is limited. It's part of why we hit a certain point where we can't learn more without forgetting other things. Granted, it is a lot, far more than what a person is likely have time to learn, but there is a limited amount the brain can store. Those neurons that would drive this are coming from other functions and it will be interesting to see how much of a reduction it makes to other functions.

      • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Wednesday February 01 2023, @07:27PM

        by Immerman (3985) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @07:27PM (#1289721)

        Pretty sure nobody alive has gotten anywhere close to the storage capacity of the brain, we forget shit because

        1) we recorded almost nothing to begin with - something like 95% of the details in a typical memory are completely imagined in at the time of recall, with some of the imagined details replacing the recalled details on every recall (which is why old, treasured memories tend to be among the least accurate)

        2) keeping a memory ties up cell resources, consuming calories, so it gets erased as soon as practical unless it's actually used regularly. Same way your muscles shrink when unused - they don't atrophy spontaneously, your body is constantly actively removing calorie-expensive "wasted" capacity. Every calorie saved is that much longer you can survive through hard times.

        3) retrograde memory interference means that new memories are constantly partially overwriting old memories, so anything that doesn't get regularly used is eventually lost under a mountain of new information.

  • (Score: 3, Funny) by stormreaver on Wednesday February 01 2023, @03:44PM (1 child)

    by stormreaver (5101) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @03:44PM (#1289655)

    I find it disheartening that there was no mention of additional limbs allowing for Instant Kill mode. Such a shame.

    • (Score: 2) by Sourcery42 on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:13PM

      by Sourcery42 (6400) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:13PM (#1289667)

      I came hoping for Otto Octavius jokes. Leaving disappointed.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by crafoo on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:47PM

    by crafoo (6639) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @05:47PM (#1289679)

    soldering is going to be so much easier. welding too. something with a compact electric impact gun and socket ratchet would be cool.

    It would be really cool if those polymer artificial muscles really take off and we get a full doctor octopus backpack.

  • (Score: 2) by SomeRandomGeek on Wednesday February 01 2023, @06:21PM (3 children)

    by SomeRandomGeek (856) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @06:21PM (#1289700)

    I accept the idea that the brain can manipulate robotic limbs as well as living ones, but that's not worth much unless the limbs can tell the brain what they are feeling. Feeling the pressure against your fingers is essential for any kind of fine motor work, from typing to picking fruit to holding a cup.

    • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Wednesday February 01 2023, @07:40PM (2 children)

      by Immerman (3985) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @07:40PM (#1289726)

      And? High-end prosthetics already deliver limited touch feedback, and one of the short term goals of improved neural implants (beyond improving the level of control over the prosthetic) is to be able to greatly increase the resolution of the feedback. Including propioception (e.g. knowing where your hand is without looking at it), which while extremely limited is also extremely important one, and as I recall seems to be all but impossible to recreate without direct neural stimulation.

      And realistically that's what they're talking about - letting people use prosthetics to "replace" limbs they never had to begin with.

      The amount of feedback from cutting-edge modern prosthetics is still be orders of magnitude below a living limb, but that just means you don't have to dedicate much brain capacity to processing it. You don't actually need much to be able to e.g. do pull-ups with the same hand that can also avoid crushing a flower. And unless you'd rather caress your lover's face with a robot arm than your real one there's not much to be gained by giving supplemental prosthetics a comparable level of sensory feedback.

      • (Score: 2) by SomeRandomGeek on Wednesday February 01 2023, @09:13PM (1 child)

        by SomeRandomGeek (856) on Wednesday February 01 2023, @09:13PM (#1289743)

        Perhaps I just made a bad assumption. I've seen some articles recently about prosthetics that people can control just by thinking. And I'd imagine that direct nerve stimulation for a missing limb is relatively straightforward. But how do you directly stimulate the nerves for an extra limb? I assumed that would be very difficult.

        • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Thursday February 02 2023, @04:50PM

          by Immerman (3985) on Thursday February 02 2023, @04:50PM (#1289881)

          You're not wrong, but direct nerve stimulation is *extremely* cutting edge. Mostly because it's only very recently that we've developed implants that don't rapidly cause nerve scarring that renders them useless.

          Most advanced modern prosthetics use indirect nerve reading and stimulation - e.g. muscle nerves that should go to the amputated limb are wired to a small patch of muscle on the chest or something as a signal amplifier, so that surface electrodes can detect the electrical signal and turn it into motion, while feedback is provided by electrodes on a piece of skin somewhere, which the users brain rapidly learns to interpret as coming from the prosthetic.

          Basically, the brain is *crazy* adaptable. As an example of a noninvasive prosthetic enhancement that adds senses, there's a military project (being tested? Already deployed?) to provide (thermal?) infrared night vision without spoiling a soldier's natural night vision like goggles do. Instead they place a card on the tongue that has a grid of electrodes on it and play the video feed across them in the form of electric stimulation. Apparently it doesn't take long before they learn to interpret the signals as a visual image they can make sense of.

          For neural implants... the monkey test I referred to above involved implanting electrodes in the part of its brain that controlled arm movements, with the goal of making a remote robot arm duplicate the natural arms movements. Soon afterwards the monkey learned to move the robot arm without moving its real arm, and I *think* could move its real arm independently as well.

          For sensory feedback they'd probably just wire directly to some of the nerves for a patch of skin somewhere as a simplified version of getting the skin mounted electrodes positioned just right every time. It probably wouldn't even take long to learn to distinguish between actual skin touches, and the tiny percentage of those nerves receiving "my robot arm feels things" messages.

  • (Score: 1) by jman on Thursday February 02 2023, @02:43PM (1 child)

    by jman (6085) Subscriber Badge on Thursday February 02 2023, @02:43PM (#1289862) Homepage
    I'd always wondered how our species evolved away from having tails. Most mammals, reptiles, fish, birds, etc., have them. Was it getting caught too much in the old tree days? A random mutation that didn't kill us? Perhaps they got in the way of this whole 2-legged walking thing.

    Have also thought for awhile it would be cool if we had large, bushy tails, with a hand at the end featuring two thumbs. You could open absolutely *any* jar, and would never have to wait for a seat.

    What this would do to the furniture and clothing industry, am not sure, but I know folks wouldn't be able to easily sleep on their backs anymore.
    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Immerman on Thursday February 02 2023, @05:23PM

      by Immerman (3985) on Thursday February 02 2023, @05:23PM (#1289888)

      Well, all our smaller cousins still have them, it's the great apes that lost them. At a wild guess I'd say that as they got larger and spent more time on the ground their tails were no longer strong enough to support their weight, making them much less useful (strength increases with cross-sectional area, while mass increases with volume, so the square-cube scaling law applies)

      Which would mean that you've got this big heavy tail that's no longer particularly useful, but still requires a bunch of calories to support. And thus any mutation that shrunk it would bestow a calorie-conserving survival advantage.

      Now that getting enough calories is no longer a challenge for most people, it would be interesting to reintroduce prehensile tails. They couldn't support our weight, but having an extra grasping limb to hold your bag, coffee cup, etc. could be really handy. Not to mention it's basically a tentacle that could reach into all kinds of out of the way places - great for reaching behind then under the refrigerator to knock that thing you dropped out to where you can reach it, or fishing out the ring you dropped down the drain.

      Could be incredibly handy in space too, where weight doesn't exist, and having an integrated, consciously controlled maneuvering "tether" could be incredibly useful. Might add that to the standard "spacer upgrade pack" along with the cancer immunity we copy from whales, and the anti-muscle-atrophy trick we copy from some hibernating animal.

      We still have at least some of the genes, there are mutations cause people to be born with small tails (normally amputated immediately), and as our understanding of DNA improves it should be easy enough to borrow whatever is needed from our more distant relatives to restore a long, fully prehensile tail.

      Fluffiness would seriously interfere with grasping ability though. And getting even a normal hand to grow on the end would be some serious Frankenstein shit. Though cybernetics might be an option, as could getting the tail to split into two "tentacle-fingers"at the end - a mutation that shows up from time to time in various species. I doubt even a hand would be any more useful for opening jars though - a tail lacks the leverage provided by rigid arm bones, and would likely have to be exercised enough be much thicker than your bicep before it could apply anywhere close to the same force. Which would likely also severely reduce its flexibility.

      On the down side - tails would require completely redesigning our chairs in order to be able to slouch. Might not be worth it.

  • (Score: 1) by Orion Blastar on Thursday February 02 2023, @07:16PM

    by Orion Blastar (5270) on Thursday February 02 2023, @07:16PM (#1289910)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaphod_Beeblebrox [wikipedia.org]

    I use my third arm to steer my speed boat while I party with the other two arms.

  • (Score: 3, Informative) by j-beda on Friday February 03 2023, @03:05PM

    by j-beda (6342) on Friday February 03 2023, @03:05PM (#1290025) Homepage

    New idiom:

    "On the one hand, we could do the thing, and make lots of money. On the other hand it could fail and we would be sunk. On the gripping hand, we will all get fired if we don't do anything, so we might as well give it a whirl."

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/on_the_gripping_hand [wiktionary.org]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gripping_Hand [wikipedia.org]

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