Science Interviews

Interview

Thu, 19th Sep 2013

What's it like to live as a cyborg?

Kevin Warwick, Reading University

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Kevin Warwick, Cybernetics Professor at Reading University has delvedg deep into his nervous system to become one of the world’s first cyborgs. We find out more.....

Kevin -   Well, I've had a number of implants.  The most successful one from it consisted of 100 electrodes, very small spikes which were fired into the nervous system in my left arm to link my nervous system with a computer and then on to the internet.  So essentially, we’re using neural signals that are signalled from my brain to control the robot hand in various places of technology.  But also, to feed signals back from a computer into my nervous system, so I could  so I could experience the extrasensory input, learn to recognise ultrasonic signals for example and recognise distance to objects, and so on.  It was really looking at extending the abilities of  a human by using implant technologies, implant technologies of that kind.

Hannah -   What were your own reasons for wanting to become one of the world’s first cyborgs?

Kevin -   Well, it was two-fold.  One was to look at the technology and assess Cyborgit for looking at helping people who have problems for therapeutic purpose – people who are paralysed or people who are blind.  All sorts of different cases where the person’s brain is functioning perfectly okay, but there is a problem getting signals from the brain to the outside world for them to move or operate technology, or whatever happens to be, or getting signals into the brain.  It was really in a general way, how could people like that be helped.  But at the same time, the second aspect was just, “Okay, well if we’re linking directly to the brain then we’re no longer restricted by the physical input/output that humans have – the human body such as the eyes and ears, or hands and legs to move.  If you connect directly to the brain then you can connect with all sorts of other pieces of technology and so, the person can have lots of different extra abilities – different senses and control different things from their brain directly.  So, it was looking at the enhancement side, allowing people to have extra abilities, as well as just using the same technology for therapeutic purposes.

Hannah -   What kind of implications for society do you think that this technology has?

Kevin -   First point is, I think we can and we’ll see over the next 10 years, all sorts of different neurological problems that will be tackled by using technology of this type.  So, things that at the moment, we couldn’t imagine and then maybe chemicals, pharmaceuticals are the best we got.  So, things like Schizophrenia for example, I think that it’s going to be tackled by using this technology.  Deep brain stimulation is available now to successfully tackle Parkinson’s disease for example and it’s also being used for things like Turret Syndrome, epilepsy.  So, these are electrodes deep in the brain that can counteract the effects of a particular problem.  Schizophrenia is amongst the problems – it’s a much broader problem, but it’s one of the problems that are now being looked at and initial investigations are being made as to where exactly to apply electrical currents to overcome the problems where to stimulate.  I think partly, it’s opening up more of an understanding on the problem, but also, with the possibility of actually tackling the problem itself.

Hannah -   What do you think was the – from your experiment on yourself – had the most impact on your life in terms of the kind of extra skill that you gave yourself?

Kevin -   The biggest thing for me, my wife also had electrodes implanted and we’d send signals from brain to brain, literally communicating electronically directly.  I think in the future, that's going to be the biggest thing of using technology into the brain that we will be able to send signals to communicate directly from brain to brain, between humans, humans and machines, and so on.  Therefore, this form of communication we call speech which is pretty pathetic technically, will be obsolete before long.  We’ll communicate just by thinking to each other.

Hannah -   What did you communicate with each other?

Kevin -   For us, it was a very, very basic thing.  A bit like, if you can remember the Morse code and telegraph type signalling dots and dashes.  When my wife closed her hand, my brain received an electronic pulse.  So, she throws down 3 or 4 times, “dic, dic, dic, dic” like that, my brain receives several pulses.  So, it was very much the first basic type of communication.  But when we have a much broader connection directly from brain to brain then clearly, it will open up all sorts of communicating in terms of thoughts, images, feelings, emotions a much broader range of communication than we have at present.

Hannah -   Thanks to you, Kevin Warwick who started cyborg communications with his wife back in 2002. 

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Very interesting, but as a pedantic point, it depends on how you define cyborg. 

Using the Oxford English Dictrionary defintion "A person whose physical tolerances or capabilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by a machine or other external agency that modifies the body's functioning; an integrated man–machine system."

A very common, temporary human augmentation is the bicycle.
It allows a human to extned their capabillity to travel distance, it is a machine (albeit a simple one) and perhaps critically, once learned, it does not require conscious thought to ride so it is undoubtedly an intergrated man-machine system.

It follows that many people have been cyborgs before Professor Warwick was born.  Mazurka, Tue, 1st Oct 2013

I find this a bit odd.. and not suspicious at all.. ('We can talk to each other through our implants.. see my wife can tell you!')

I find that the technology being described is not cybernetic.. and has been in use for a long time, (pacemakers anyone?)

The idea of controlling a robotic arm with the signals going to your own arm is very intriguing.. but I have severe doubts over the quality of the feedback that could be achieved though.. and as for communicating electronically direct to brain.. gives me a headache just thinking of direct electrical inputs into what is still not really fully understood. We dont even understand what thoughts are so how can he say that we could communicate with them.

Meh, just seems like pie in the sky wishful thinking.. but the things with that is.. there sometimes IS a pie and i wish him all the luck with it.  SimpleEngineer, Wed, 2nd Oct 2013

"A person whose physical tolerances or capabilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by a machine or other external agency that modifies the body's functioning; an integrated man–machine system."

They say of all the best aeroplanes that "you don't fly it, you wear it". I'm told the Spitfire is the ultimate example, but I've found the rather more affordable Robin 400 a pretty good fit for an off-the-peg machine.

More seriously, we have been using cochlear implants for many years, and they do raise an interesting ethical question: by implanting a profoundly deaf infant, you are integrating him into hearing society but his social status and integration for the next 80 years is wholly dependent on last year's technology. I do not know of any source of replacement components for an 80-year-old radio or telephone, never mind a digital signal processor. What happens when he drops the transmitter down the toilet, or leaves it on the bus, in 20 years' time? If we didn't implant the kid, he could live as a profoundly deaf person with no such worries.  alancalverd, Wed, 2nd Oct 2013

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