All hands on deck: pianists learn to play with extra robotic thumb [video]


  • Neuroscientist Adlo Faisal in London wanted to know how pianists’ brains would respond to suddenly having an extra thumb.
  • Within an hour, six players had ingrained it into their keyboard techniques.
  • The research has implications as to how the brain is wired, as each finger is controlled by a designated part of the brain.

How would a piano player’s brain respond to suddenly having an extra thumb? Would it go all haywire, or would the extra digit contribute to their playing?

As it turns out, they’re able to adapt to an extra thumb rather quickly.

Neuroscientist Adlo Faisal and his team at Imperial College London developed a robot thumb to find out.

Within an hour of being fitted with the artificial digit next to the little finger of their right hand, six players had incorporated it into their keyboard technique. They controlled the bonus thumb by using electrical signals generated by foot movement.

“It came out of my own passion for piano that I wondered what happens if I have an extra finger?” Faisal said. “There’s a dedicated area of your brain responsible for every single finger.”

“So now comes the question, if I give you an eleventh finger… are you processing it the same way as you’re processing a regular limb?”

Faisal, a Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience at the college’s Departments of Bioengineering and Computing, found that the participants all adapted to the thumb quickly — regardless of their playing ability. The research suggests humans aren’t limited to using an extra digit for tasks we are familiar with.

“The fact that you can actually play with eleven fingers is not entirely trivial, and that has to do with how your brain is actually wired up,” Faisal said.

“So what we can say is it’s a proof of existence. We can do it. So, the next challenge would be can we do two thumbs, so 12-fingered? Can we do something else?”

Source: Reuter’s

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