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Public have no difficulty getting to grips with an extra thumb, study finds

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Public have no difficulty getting to grips with an extra thumb, study finds


Cambridge researchers have shown that members of the public have little trouble in learning very quickly how to use a third thumb — a controllable, prosthetic extra thumb — to pick up and manipulate objects.

The team tested the robotic device on a diverse range of participants, which they say is essential for ensuring new technologies are inclusive and can work for everyone.

An emerging area of future technology is motor augmentation — using motorised wearable devices such as exoskeletons or extra robotic body parts to advance our motor capabilities beyond current biological limitations.

While such devices could improve the quality of life for healthy individuals who want to enhance their productivity, the same technologies can also provide people with disabilities new ways to interact with their environment.

Professor Tamar Makin from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge said: “Technology is changing our very definition of what it means to be human, with machines increasingly becoming a part of our everyday lives, and even our minds and bodies.

“These technologies open up exciting new opportunities that can benefit society, but it’s vital that we consider how they can help all people equally, especially marginalised communities who are often excluded from innovation research and development. To ensure everyone will have the opportunity to participate and benefit from these exciting advances, we need to explicitly integrate and measure inclusivity during the earliest possible stages of the research and development process.”

Dani Clode, a collaborator within Professor Makin’s lab, has developed the Third Thumb, an extra robotic thumb aimed at increasing the wearer’s range of movement, enhancing their grasping capability and expanding the carrying capacity of the hand. This allows the user to perform tasks that might be otherwise challenging or impossible to complete with one hand or to perform complex multi-handed tasks without having to coordinate with other people.

The Third Thumb is worn on the opposite side of the palm to the biological thumb and controlled by a pressure sensor placed under each big toe or foot. Pressure from the right toe pulls the Thumb across the hand, while the pressure exerted with the left toe pulls the Thumb up toward the fingers. The extent of the Thumb’s movement is proportional to the pressure applied, and releasing pressure moves it back to its original position.

In 2022, the team had the opportunity to test the Third Thumb at the annual Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, where members of the public of all ages were able to use the device during different tasks. The results are published today in Science Robotics.

Over the course of five days, the team tested 596 participants, ranging in age from three to 96 years old and from a wide range of demographic backgrounds. Of these, only four were unable to use the Third Thumb, either because it did not fit their hand securely, or because they were unable to control it with their feet (the pressure sensors developed specifically for the exhibition were not suitable for very lightweight children).

Participants were given up to a minute to familiarise themselves with the device, during which time the team explained how to perform one of two tasks.

The first task involved picking up pegs from a pegboard one at a time with just the Third Thumb and placing them in a basket. Participants were asked to move as many pegs as possible in 60 seconds. 333 participants completed this task.

The second task involved using the Third Thumb together with the wearer’s biological hand to manipulate and move five or six different foam objects. The objects were of various shapes that required different manipulations to be used, increasing the dexterity of the task. Again, participants were asked to move as many objects as they could into the basket within a maximum of 60 seconds. 246 participants completed this task.

Almost everyone was able to use the device straightaway. 98% of participants were able to successfully manipulate objects using the Third Thumb during the first minute of use, with only 13 participants unable to perform the task.

Ability levels between participants were varied, but there were no differences in performance between genders, nor did handedness change performance — despite the Thumb always being worn on the right hand. There was no definitive evidence that people who might be considered ‘good with their hands’ — for example, they were learning to play a musical instrument, or their jobs involved manual dexterity — were any better at the tasks.

Older and younger adults had a similar level of ability when using the new technology, though further investigation just within the older adults age bracket revealed a decline in performance with increasing age. The researchers say this effect could be due to the general degradation in sensorimotor and cognitive abilities that are associated with ageing and may also reflect a generational relationship to technology.

Performance was generally poorer among younger children. Six out of the 13 participants that could not complete the task were below the age of 10 years old, and of those that did complete the task, the youngest children tended to perform worse compared to older children. But even older children (aged 12-16 years) struggled more than young adults.

Dani said: “Augmentation is about designing a new relationship with technology — creating something that extends beyond being merely a tool to becoming an extension of the body itself. Given the diversity of bodies, it’s crucial that the design stage of wearable technology is as inclusive as possible. It’s equally important that these devices are accessible and functional for a wide range of users. Additionally, they should be easy for people to learn and use quickly.”

Co-author Lucy Dowdall, also from the MRC Cognition and Brain Science Unit, added: “If motor augmentation — and even broader human-machine interactions — are to be successful, they’ll need to integrate seamlessly with the user’s motor and cognitive abilities. We’ll need to factor in different ages, genders, weight, lifestyles, disabilities — as well as people’s cultural, financial backgrounds, and even likes or dislikes of technology. Physical testing of large and diverse groups of individuals is essential to achieve this goal.”

There are countless examples of where a lack of inclusive design considerations has led to technological failure:

  • Automated speech recognition systems that convert spoken language to text have been shown to perform better listening to white voices over Black voices.
  • Some augmented reality technologies have been found to be less effective for users with darker skin tones.
  • Women face a higher health risk from car accidents, due to car seats and seatbelts being primarily designed to accommodate ‘average’ male-sized dummies during crash testing.
  • Hazardous power and industrial tools designed for a right-hand dominant use or grip have resulted in more accidents when operated by left-handers forced to use their non-dominant hand.

This research was funded by the European Research Council, Wellcome, the Medical Research Council and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.



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Prying open the AI black box

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Prying open the AI black box


Artificial intelligence continues to squirm its way into many aspects of our lives. But what about biology, the study of life itself? AI can sift through hundreds of thousands of genome data points to identify potential new therapeutic targets. While these genomic insights may appear helpful, scientists aren’t sure how today’s AI models come to their conclusions in the first place. Now, a new system named SQUID arrives on the scene armed to pry open AI’s black box of murky internal logic.

SQUID, short for Surrogate Quantitative Interpretability for Deepnets, is a computational tool created by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) scientists. It’s designed to help interpret how AI models analyze the genome. Compared with other analysis tools, SQUID is more consistent, reduces background noise, and can lead to more accurate predictions about the effects of genetic mutations.

How does it work so much better? The key, CSHL Assistant Professor Peter Koo says, lies in SQUID’s specialized training.

“The tools that people use to try to understand these models have been largely coming from other fields like computer vision or natural language processing. While they can be useful, they’re not optimal for genomics. What we did with SQUID was leverage decades of quantitative genetics knowledge to help us understand what these deep neural networks are learning,” explains Koo.

SQUID works by first generating a library of over 100,000 variant DNA sequences. It then analyzes the library of mutations and their effects using a program called MAVE-NN (Multiplex Assays of Variant Effects Neural Network). This tool allows scientists to perform thousands of virtual experiments simultaneously. In effect, they can “fish out” the algorithms behind a given AI’s most accurate predictions. Their computational “catch” could set the stage for experiments that are more grounded in reality.

“In silico [virtual] experiments are no replacement for actual laboratory experiments. Nevertheless, they can be very informative. They can help scientists form hypotheses for how a particular region of the genome works or how a mutation might have a clinically relevant effect,” explains CSHL Associate Professor Justin Kinney, a co-author of the study.

There are tons of AI models in the sea. More enter the waters each day. Koo, Kinney, and colleagues hope that SQUID will help scientists grab hold of those that best meet their specialized needs.

Though mapped, the human genome remains an incredibly challenging terrain. SQUID could help biologists navigate the field more effectively, bringing them closer to their findings’ true medical implications.



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Iron meteorites hint that our infant solar system was more doughnut than dartboard

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Iron meteorites hint that our infant solar system was more doughnut than dartboard


Four and a half billion years ago, our solar system was a cloud of gas and dust swirling around the sun, until gas began to condense and accrete along with dust to form asteroids and planets. What did this cosmic nursery, known as a protoplanetary disk, look like, and how was it structured? Astronomers can use telescopes to “see” protoplanetary disks far away from our much more mature solar system, but it is impossible to observe what ours might have looked like in its infancy — only an alien billions of light years away would be able to see it as it once was.

Fortunately, space has dropped a few clues — fragments of objects that formed early in solar system history and plunged through Earth’s atmosphere, called meteorites. The composition of meteorites tells stories of the solar system’s birth, but these stories often raise more questions than answers.

In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of planetary scientists from UCLA and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory reports that refractory metals, which condense at high temperatures, such as iridium and platinum, were more abundant in meteorites formed in the outer disk, which was cold and far away from the sun. These metals should have formed close to the sun, where the temperature was much higher. Was there a pathway that moved these metals from the inner disk to the outer?

Most meteorites formed within the first few million years of solar system history. Some meteorites, called chondrites, are unmelted conglomerations of grains and dust left over from planet formation. Other meteorites experienced enough heat to melt while their parent asteroids were forming. When these asteroids melted, the silicate part and the metallic part separated due to their difference in density, similar to how water and oil don’t mix.

Today, most asteroids are located in a thick belt between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists think that Jupiter’s gravity disrupted the course of these asteroids, causing many of them to smash into each other and break apart. When pieces of these asteroids fall to Earth and are recovered, they are called meteorites.

Iron meteorites are from the metallic cores of the earliest asteroids, older than any other rocks or celestial objects in our solar system. The irons contain molybdenum isotopes that point toward many different locations across the protoplanetary disk in which these meteorites formed. That allows scientists to learn what the chemical composition of the disk was like in its infancy.

Previous research using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile has found many disks around other stars that resemble concentric rings, like a dartboard. The rings of these planetary disks, such as HL Tau, are separated by physical gaps, so this kind of disk could not provide a route to transport these refractory metals from the inner disk to the outer.

The new paper holds that our solar disk likely didn’t have a ring structure at the very beginning. Instead, our planetary disk looked more like a doughnut, and asteroids with metal grains rich in iridium and platinum metals migrated to the outer disk as it rapidly expanded.

But that confronted the researchers with another puzzle. After the disk expansion, gravity should have pulled these metals back into the sun. But that did not happen.

“Once Jupiter formed, it very likely opened a physical gap that trapped the iridium and platinum metals in the outer disk and prevented them from falling into the sun,” said first author Bidong Zhang, a UCLA planetary scientist. “These metals were later incorporated into asteroids that formed in the outer disk. This explains why meteorites formed in the outer disk — carbonaceous chondrites and carbonaceous-type iron meteorites — have much higher iridium and platinum contents than their inner-disk peers.”

Zhang and his collaborators previously used iron meteorites to reconstruct how water was distributed in the protoplanetary disk.

“Iron meteorites are hidden gems. The more we learn about iron meteorites, the more they unravel the mystery of our solar system’s birth,” Zhang said.



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Supermassive black hole appears to grow like a baby star

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Supermassive black hole appears to grow like a baby star


Supermassive black holes pose unanswered questions for astronomers around the world, not least “How do they grow so big?” Now, an international team of astronomers, including researchers from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, has discovered a powerful rotating, magnetic wind that they believe is helping a galaxy’s central supermassive black hole to grow. The swirling wind, revealed with the help of the ALMA telescope in nearby galaxy ESO320-G030, suggests that similar processes are involved both in black hole growth and the birth of stars.

Most galaxies, including our own Milky Way have a supermassive black hole at their centre. How these mind-bogglingly massive objects grow to weigh as much as millions or billions of stars is a long-standing question for astronomers.

In search of clues to this mystery, a team of scientists led by Mark Gorski (Northwestern University and Chalmers) and Susanne Aalto (Chalmers) chose to study the relatively nearby galaxy ESO320-G030, only 120 million light years distant. It’s a very active galaxy, forming stars ten times as fast as in our own galaxy.

“Since this galaxy is very luminous in the infrared, telescopes can resolve striking details in its centre. We wanted to measure light from molecules carried by winds from the galaxy’s core, hoping to trace how the winds are launched by a growing, or soon to be growing, supermassive black hole. By using ALMA, we were able to study light from behind thick layers of dust and gas,” says Susanne Aalto, Professor of Radio Astronomy at Chalmers University of Technology.

To zero in on dense gas from as close as possible to the central black hole, the scientists studied light from molecules of hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Thanks to ALMA’s ability to image fine details and trace movements in the gas — using the Doppler effect — they discovered patterns that suggest the presence of a magnetised, rotating wind.

While other winds and jets in the centre of galaxies push material away from the supermassive black hole, the newly discovered wind adds another process, that can instead feed the black hole and help it grow.

“We can see how the winds form a spiralling structure, billowing out from the galaxy’s centre. When we measured the rotation, mass, and velocity of the material flowing outwards, we were surprised to find that we could rule out many explanations for the power of the wind, star formation for example. Instead, the flow outwards may be powered by the inflow of gas and seems to be held together by magnetic fields,” says Susanne Aalto.

The scientists think that the rotating magnetic wind helps the black hole to grow.

Material travels around the black hole before it can fall in — like water around a drain. Matter that approaches the black hole collects in a chaotic, spinning disk. There, magnetic fields develop and get stronger. The magnetic fields help lift matter away from the galaxy, creating the spiralling wind. Losing matter to this wind also slows the spinning disk — that means that matter can flow more easily into the black hole, turning a trickle into a stream.

For Mark Gorski, the way this happens is strikingly reminiscent of a much smaller-scale environment in space: the swirls of gas and dust that lead up to the birth of new stars and planets.

“It is well-established that stars in the first stages of their evolution grow with the help of rotating winds — accelerated by magnetic fields, just like the wind in this galaxy. Our observations show that supermassive black holes and tiny stars can grow by similar processes, but on very different scales,” says Mark Gorski.

Could this discovery be a clue to solving the mystery of how supermassive black holes grow? In the future, Mark Gorski, Susanne Aalto and their colleagues want to study other galaxies which may harbour hidden spiralling outflows in their centres.

“Far from all questions about this process are answered. In our observations we see clear evidence of a rotating wind that helps regulate the growth of the galaxy’s central black hole. Now that we know what to look for, the next step is to find out how common a phenomenon this is. And if this is a stage which all galaxies with supermassive black holes go through, what happens to them next?,” asks Mark Gorski.



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