What is cybernetics?

15 January 2012

Interview with

Kevin Warwick, Reading University

Kevin -  Cybernetics is humans and technology linking together.  So, it's the whole system.  It's looking at how it all works together, so lots of practical examples.  Cyborgs has perhaps been more of a science fiction thing in the past, where the technology and the human are integral.  They're not separable, as it were, and the abilities, possibly could be much, much, more than humans alone.  

Helen -   Perhaps there are things that we do not consider as being cybernetics? Things like pacemakers and cochlear implants- we're quite familiar with that sort of technology - does that count?  

Kevin -   Well, to some people, it would.  I mean, it's interesting to me.  I'm Deep brain stimulationinvolved in working with Professor Tipu Aziz at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford.  They implant the deep brain stimulator.  This is a long electrode, it's actually about 4 or 6 electrodes on the end of a long wire, pushed into the centre of someone's brain into the subthalamic nucleus, a small part of the brain, and an electrical pulse is applied there to overcome the effects of Parkinson disease.  It's also being used now for depression and even in some cases, for Tourette's Syndrome, but what's interesting now is we can also take signals from the electrodes and monitor what's going on in the brain, hopefully to try and predict when people's tremors are going to start, things like that, but it's also giving a new insight in what the disease is.  So you could regard it as a cyborg, in terms of cybernetics it's giving us more of an insight to actually what's going on in the person's brain.  

Helen -   And what about the more far off things, the sort of things we might actually consider science fiction, really mixing machines with people?  Where are we at with that kind of thing?  

Kevin -   All sorts of possibilities.  I mean, one of the things we have done: growing neurons, culturing neurons, and then linking them up to a robot body.  They're typically rat neurons because they were also studying with rat neurons but also, human neurons.  So, we can actually look at how the neurons learn, how they connect together to make the robot move around and avoid objects and things like that.  And in that sense, by applying new neurons, or stem cells over time, you can try and keep some of the memories, some of the way the robot operates in terms of this biological brain, keep it going, which gives hopefully a bit of an insight into things like Alzheimer's in terms of when neurons are dying off, can we add new neurons and so on, to keep the brain going?  So it could help in the long term, but it's fun at the moment and it's experimental, it's very sort of frontline science.  

Helen -   One of the things that fascinates me the most is the idea of extrasensory perception, the idea of plugging myself in and being able to see or sense things that currently, I can't.  Where are we at those sorts of areas of cybernetics?  

Kevin -   Well, the implant that I have had which
Andy Schwartz will talk about - maybe I shouldn't spoil it for people - he'll talk more about what the implant can do. But in my case, it was fired into my nervous system and I was able to experience ultrasonic signals.  This is like sonar signals which gives you an indication of distance.  So I had ultrasonic sensors on a baseball cap.  Literally, the output of those were fed in by the implant into my nervous system.  So I learned to recognise the pulses over a period of 6 weeks, but then was able to use it to detect where objects were.  So it's only a small wire.  It's like extending the senses if you like or having an ultrasonic sense but it shows that we can do that and therefore, in the future, having things like infrared, maybe stretching to things like x-ray.  So it's not having a different visual, it's not seeing something but literally, it is sensing it in a different way.  The human brain is very plastic, very adaptive in that respect.  

Helen -   And how did your brain adapt to having this implant taken out?  That must have been quite strange to go back to normal.  

Kevin -   I mean, this is a science programme and I have to say, one of the key things was, we were absolutely exhausted.  This was 3 months of research and at the end of it, I think we were in the lab every day, so I was a "lab rat" in that sense and I think exhaustion was the overriding thing.  It was only something that we were doing in the lab, so sort of from time to time, it wasn't something that I was using in everyday life.  I think if it had been, if I had this ultrasonic sense as a sort of permanent thing for a couple of months, I would've missed it, yes.  But it was something we were really just experimenting within the lab, so it wasn't such a problem when it got taken out.  It was the end of the experiment.  We wanted to look at what had happened to the implant, and what had happened to the nervous system and things like that.  So that was part of the experiment, part of the trial was that as well.  

Helen -   And looking ahead, where are the big challenges that lie ahead of you in terms of all of this research you're doing?  Would you say that it's the scientific barriers that you have to break through or is it the ethics actually?  I mean, that must presumably throw up a whole lot of issues, tangled up with the idea of part people, part machines, and where that's taking us.  

Kevin -   Yeah.  I think it's a little bit of everything.  Power is an issue.  How do you power implants?  Particularly if something's in the body, can we use body power?  And there, I think possibilities with wireless transmission of power.  That's tremendously exciting at the moment, so this is something Nikola Tesla spoke of.  At the moment, if you're in your home, you've got power provided by wires. The possibilities of wireless power, that's certainly something we're researching.  That could not just affect implants, but could affect vehicles.  We can have powered vehicles, remotely powered vehicles, so it's tremendously exciting.  But I think ethically, self-imposed ethics are one of those things.  You don't want to injure somebody, you don't want to cause problems, but at the same time, ethics to do with human enhancement which is a possibility - extra memory, new ways of communication- is very difficult to decide what are the ethical aspects because there could be commercial opportunities, but it could also affect an awful lot of people.    

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