Researchers explore technology around mechanical prosthetic digits

Technology may make the sight of six fingers more common. Picture: Shutterstock.
Technology may make the sight of six fingers more common. Picture: Shutterstock.

"Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die." This famous quote from The Princess Bride is rated at number 86 in a list of top movie moments.

Montoya's father was slaughtered by a six-fingered man (Count Rugen) and Montoya wants to exact his revenge on the man with polydactyly.

While an extra digit is more common in the population than most people realise with one in every thousand babies born with an extra finger, thumb or toe, technology may make the sight of six fingers more common.

For the last six years, researchers have been working on a mechanical extra thumb which is strapped to a user's hand and controlled by an electronic sensor located in their shoe.

In recent testing, participants were able to control the thumb with enough dexterity they could use it to assist in playing the piano.

Why, you might ask? Well there is the minor matter of having a human play the piano piece in Gattaca that is only able to be played by a twelve-fingered pianist, as portrayed by Ryan Dorin in the film.

This piece was written such that it was impossible to play with only ten fingers. Probably not a good enough reason to spend six years building an extra thumb!

More lifestyle:

Researchers are working on a new field called human augmentation.

Steve Austin, the six-million dollar man, was the first fictional example of this field of research and demonstrates one of the main areas of focus.

If someone suffers an injury or has a disability, every part of their life is impacted.

If you were to lose your pinky finger in an accident, apart from the impact on your piano playing, you could probably cope with most daily routines.

Now imagine life with the loss of a thumb. Suddenly the ability to grasp many items has dramatically reduced.

If researchers can build an extra thumb that can be strapped to a wrist and controlled by another part of someone's body, life for that individual can be much closer to what we could call normal.

Continue down that same path. People born with oligodactyly or those who suffer an injury and lose multiple fingers on a hand or even lose an entire hand could all benefit by the technological addition of fingers and thumbs.

Showing how malleable our brains are, researchers also found the brain changed very quickly as a result of a user having six digits.

If brains can adapt quickly to an extra digit, it also means that users without the normal number of digits will quickly be able to adapt once they end up with a technological finger addition.

The next major step forward for researchers will be how to control the fingers. While having a sensor in your shoe for testing may seem reasonable, researchers believe that better options may be available.

We are not quite at the stage of inserting a chip in your skull to communicate with some technology on your hand, the more likely scenario is that some part of your body will be used to control your fingers.

As a final bonus, it might give me a better answer to give to my wife when she asks for some help in the house.

"I could really use an extra set of hands cleaning up the kitchen," may soon be met with the response, "I left them in the lounge room!"

  • Mathew Dickerson is a technologist, futurist and host of the top Australian-produced technology podcast, Tech Talk.