Note: This was November 2009 I think…was doing journalism for a few months back then.
If anyone could gain approval to insert an electronic chip into the main nerves of their wrist, link their own nervous system to the Internet, and control a robot hand from over 3,000 miles away, with the potential risk of nerve damage, it is Professor Warwick. He’s been there, done that, got the T-Shirt, but it is not all fun and games: ‘If anyone had known the IP address, which was my nervous system, then they could have sent repetitive electronic signals which could have harmed me,’ he admits. Clearly the Professor is a man who is not afraid to put himself at risk for the sake of his experiments.
So, if you want to know what the future holds, avoid dishing out money on Tarot or palm reading, and avert your eyes from the dregs of tea leaves at the bottom of your cup, because the oracles probably have less answers than Professor Kevin Warwick. The acclaimed Pioneer of Cybernetics, who devotes his present to the future, also happens to be the world’s first cyborg.
However, when asked what he would describe as his main achievement, his response does not detail this, instead he muses playfully: ‘In an academic sense I guess you mean’. If one were expecting the Professor of Cybernetics at Reading University to be full of stiff pomposity, then they would be severely disappointed. His main achievement was in fact the last implant he had with his wife, when they were connected to one another’s nervous systems. A romantic at heart?
‘It’s going to lead to brain-to-brain communication,’ he states simply, with something deeper than ambition in his voice. It seems a mere tête-à-tête will someday cease to transpire without taking on the quality of an Isaac Asimov novella.
‘Communication has been important to me ever since my childhood,’ he explains, which was probably why he took up a position with British Telecoms at the tender age of sixteen. But it becomes clear, as he mentions the falling numbers of those going into fields of science and technology, that his immediate goal is ‘to excite a few people about the subject area.’
Never one to waste time, Professor Warwick even has robots to teach other robots. ‘There was one robot learning in the U.K., teaching a robot in the U.S., which is quite an achievement’. And as for his stance on being a ‘mere human’, it is doubtful he has patience in evolution’s ability to eventually enhance our senses sufficiently; ‘Technically we each only sense about 5% of what is going on around us’, he claims, ‘But there is technology, even existing today, which can change that.’
This is, of course, referral to his own experimentation within Project Cyborg, and other such projects, which involve using devices that have granted temporary ‘biomechanical enhancements’, such as ultrasonic ability. ‘Just like a bat, I could sense where objects were, even when blindfolded. But it is an ability that you have to learn to use; our brains aren’t automatically set up to receive those signals.’
Aside from the challenge of adapting to the technology, there is another significant hurdle; ‘The implants I had, bringing them about wasn’t straightforward; there were surgeons involved and getting that ethical approval’. It involves a lot of form filling and ‘sucking up to Ethics Committees’ he smiles wryly.
Is this why some have described him as ‘a mad professor’? Well, the way he sees it; ‘There’s a lot of people now into body art, shoving things under their skin, I mean, to me they’re quite weird, but there’s a lot of people is the point. Maybe I’m just old, but the procedures we’re looking at here [sensory enhancement] are actually far less invasive. There’s an enormous commercial possibility.’
Who wouldn’t want sensory enhancement? ‘Just a small electrode and you can start communicating in a much richer form,’ he says with all the persuasive device of a salesman, and a casual shrug. One must reflect upon times where social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook did not even exist, and people were not posting their every thought or enlistment of their bowel movements on Twitter. The latter is of course, and hopefully, an exaggeration, but the point is; an idea always seems ridiculous before it is introduced. ‘There may well be a bit of resistance from people at first, that’s natural, but that is where commercial enterprises come in, they make it look natural and like everyone’s going to have it soon. It’s partly a fashion thing.’
He talks of the potential future exploration of Infrared and X-Ray vision ability, admitting ‘Maybe they would be useless, but maybe not.’ This triggers the image in one’s mind of walking through Airport metal detectors, with additional staff hired to scan your person with suspicious all-seeing eyes.
‘With changing technology, a lot of people initially say “hmm I don’t want to do that”, but when the tide goes that way, people usually go along with it. I mean, my wife in the 60’s had said she would never wear a mini skirt, but within a few months she was wearing it. As for thought communication, people are going to go for that, big time, when it’s further down the stream.’
Creating these sensory devices is not all about general enhancement of the functional human body though; Professor Warwick places strong focus on the technologies’ ability to aid those with various disabilities. ‘That’s about five questions,’ he laughs as he deduces how best to explain benefits of his work to people with Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and Parkinson’s. ‘This is where my rat-brain experiment is going, I had a philosophical discussion recently as to whether the brain cells are conscious, and all those issues. We’ve got a brain that we’ve grown, and it’s driving the robot around. So we can put the robot into positions and see how this robot memorizes the positions and figures out what to do.’
In trying to get to the basis of how memories are formed, the Professor seeks a better understanding of conditions such as Alzheimer’s. ‘With Alzheimer’s we need to work out exactly what is going on, is the person losing their memories? Or is it the passageways; the connections, that are dying off.’
With epilepsy and Parkinson’s he explains ‘Our aim is to read the electrical brain signals and stop the tremors or seizures before they happen.’ His technology already offers potential aid to those suffering with paralysis, whom could benefit from an implant that would sense brain activity, and respond accordingly: ‘for example being used to turn lights on and off’.
However, some people are paranoid about these chip implants. ‘Just a few weeks ago I had a teacher of young children come across from Holland, and I would say she’s completely crazy, yet she’s teaching children, but she believes strongly that she’s got this implant that has come from somewhere and is controlling her actions. To me it’s quite weird.’ He laughs, but not cruelly, and even goes on to grant credibility to certain levels of caution; ‘There are future possibilities though, so we do have to watch out. There may well be misuse for it, the same as anything else.’
Having explained his experimentation’s aims, he says simply; ‘Well here it is, now argue about it yourself’, with a level of humour that one becomes appreciatively familiarized with.