Type to search

Neuroscientist Creates Robotic Thumb for Piano Players


A team of researchers has investigated a way to attach an extra robotic finger to pianists.

In the British study, 12 test subjects were given a robotic thumb to be attached to their right hand. Among the 12 participants, six were already experienced piano players, while the other six were not. This helped gauge whether the thumb was effective only in people with experience playing, or those who are new to the skill.

But how does inventing a robotic finger even cross a person’s mind?

“It came out of my own passion for piano,” explains Professor Aldo Faisal, a neuroscientist working at the Imperial College of London in Britain. “I wondered, what happens if I had an extra finger?”

Faisal started with a robotics challenge and ended up with a unique discovery on how our brain works.

He explains that there is a dedicated area in the brain responsible for controlling each finger. This is called the motor cortex, a small area on the outer part of the brain that decides if, when, and how our fingers move.

With that in mind, is it possible for our brain to adapt to an attached robotic finger? Will our brains process it in the same way as other limbs?

Pianists Say Thumb Becomes An “Extension of You”

“Can we build a robotic thumb that can sit on the opposite side of the right hand and play music with it?” Faisal explains his motivations to Reuters.

Instead of relying on signals from our brain’s motor cortex to function, the extra finger is instead controlled by the pianists’ foot movements.

The participants noted that the sensation of having an attached robotic thumb felt challenging at first. But after a few hours of playing, they started to get used to it, and said that it felt almost like an “extension of you.” Not only that, but it only took an hour after fitting for the piano players to figure out how to play the keys with their extra thumb.

Can Our Brain Adapt to 12 Fingers?

All twelve participants of the experiment were quick to adjust to their new robotic limb. For Faisal, this meant a bright future ahead.

“The fact that you can actually play with eleven fingers…has to do with how your brain is actually wired up,” he said. “So what we can say is it’s a proof of existence.”

It also begs the question, if 11 fingers are possible, could the human brain also adapt to an attached twelfth finger? These are just a few of the things that the research team looks forward to exploring further.

“It’s a very exciting moment in time now to see what we can do,” states Faisal.

Sota Takahashi

Sota Takahashi is a Japanese-born electrical engineer. At the age of 18, he moved to Seattle and completed his Electrical Engineering degree at the University of Washington, Seattle. Being a fan of all things tech, he channels his geeky side through this website, and with his wife Linda, shares knowledge about robot pets and how they can be lifelong and advantageous companions for both children and the elderly.

  • 1