Science Interviews


Sun, 16th Jan 2005

Cyborgs And Upgrading Humans

Dr. Kevin Warwick, University of Reading Chris - You were saying earlier that the whole point of putting implants into humans is to make them better. Do we really need to do that?

Part of the show Cybernetics and Computer Vision

Kevin - It's a big ethical question. The technology can be used to help people who have been paralysed, are blind, have motor neurone disease and other problems. An implant can help them. In Parkinson's disease, implants can send impulses into the brain to counteract the shaky symptoms of the disease. Implants also provide the opportunity for upgrading. Your brain might be fine and everything is healthy, but can we make it even better? At the moment we have five senses, but why not have more?

I myself have had an ultrasonic sense. This is not science fiction. With a blindfold on, I could move around and detect objects so I didn't bump into things.

Chris - How does that work?

Kevin - We fed ultrasonic signals down through a baseball cap into my nervous system. It took about six weeks to train my brain to recognise electric pulses so that as I got nearer an object, y brain was being stimulated by more and more pulses of current. The implants were put into my median nerve, which is the main bunch of nerve fibres that run down your arm between your brain and your hand.

Helen - What did that feel like?

Kevin - It felt like something was close! When we were training my brain to recognise the pulses, the sense it made of the signals when nothing else was happening was that my finger was being twiddled a little bit. When we were doing the experiment, every time the signals came in, I knew something was close. My brain made that link and I could navigate around the room by the frequency of pulse signals. The pulses went straight into the nervous system.

Helen - Do you think you'll be able to find a way to 'see' with ultrasound like bats do?

Kevin - I'm sure there is a way, but our experiment just looked at the simple case of whether there is an object there or not. If we had carried on the experiment, then maybe I would have been able to do that. The only problem with ultrasonic signals is that they are quite wide, so it's difficult to get good resolution like you can with a laser. It would be interesting to try other wavelengths like infrared or x-rays as signals. With x-ray sense you have the possibility of checking people at customs to see if they have a gun in their pocket. With infrared sense, which would detect heat, you would be able to see if someone was hiding behind a wall. It opens up all sorts of possibilities.

Chris - If someone has gone blind and we want to restore an eye, how close are we to being able to harness the optic nerve and feed back in signals so they can see?

Kevin - It's very difficult. There has been much more success with cochlea implants for hearing where the auditory nerve is still functioning. However, even with a functioning optic nerve, artificial retina research has only provided vague outlines. Blind people have been able to see shapes and letters when bright lights have been shone in their eyes, but the computer software has had to be specially adjusted for each person. This shows that there is still a very long way to go in this area. Saying that, at least it's a step forward.

Chris - When you had your implants in your wrist, you picked up mobile phone signals. Tell me some more about that.

Kevin - It didn't happen all the time but there was one case that was particularly interesting. We were looking at my brain signals on a screen when suddenly they started getting much bigger. I was quite concerned as I wasn't sure what was happening to my nervous system! We found out that while this was happening, one of the researchers received a text message on his mobile phone. When he went out of the room, the signals went back to normal. This shows the mobile phone was having an effect on my nervous system.

Chris - We've been talking about putting things into the body, but what about taking things out of the body and putting them in a dish? I read a paper a few months ago about some people who grew some nerve cells in a dish, connected them up to a computer and eventually trained them to fly a flight simulator.

Kevin - Yes, this is the research of Steve Butters. Rat brains are being used quite a lot. They are being cultured, being kept alive for quite a while and being taught. By stimulating the brain in certain ways you can get it to strengthen pathways in the brain, which makes it more likely to do things. You must remember that these simulators are just that: rats couldn't fly a plane!


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