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Are we destined to become one with machines? Notes on a Kevin Warwick Talk

On the 10th November 2004, Kevin Warwick came to the University of Leeds to give a talk entitled ‘Cyborg Engineering - Practical experiments with implant technology.’ Kevin is currently a Professor or Cybernetics at the University of Reading, where he has completed two implant experiments. He has also written a book entitled ‘I, Cyborg’ detailing his exploits. Besides my interest in AI and philosophy, I wanted to see Kevin Warwick as he has created controversy and discussion in the community.

The talk began with a discussion of the things that computers can do much better than humans. Fast and accurate mathematical computations are the obvious example, but the ability to work in multiple dimensions, their fast and large internal memory, and access to almost the entirety of human knowledge via the Internet represents other attractive mechanised traits that humans would like to have. It was argued that by linking our brains to a computer, we may be able to initially draw on these tools, and ultimately make use of these features in a natural way by calling on the resources as required simply through the transparent power of thought.

It was noted that traditionally, computers are inherently hard to communicate with. This is of course due to their need for accurate representations, and the lack of successful and accurate natural interfaces such as natural typed or written English. However, Kevin felt that the mode of highly parallel, accurate and efficient communication methods employed by computers was perhaps far superior to our human modes of communication. To me this is a somewhat uncomfortable idea, but as noted, the act of transferring our electrical signals in our brain into sound waves, only for the recipient to convert them back to into electrical signals for analysis is an inherently inefficient, clumsy and error prone method.

So, with the point made that humans are in many instances inferior to machines, and that they have lots of nice traits which we would like to acquire, the ground was set to explore how we might begin to connect our nervous system into the electronic world to drive our external experience simply by our thought processes. Kevin has considered such issues and tackled them in his research, and much of the talk was taken up by describing this work.

In 1998, Kevin took a small step towards the ultimate goal by having a small chip implanted in his left forearm. This chip drew power from coils that were strategically placed around his Reading University department. The chip essentially gave off radio waves that were collected by a computer to produce effects in the real world such as announcing greetings and manipulating lights. These are the kind of chips that have since found a more widespread acceptance by electronically chipping pets, supply chain automation, and even paying for beer!

Kevin acknowledged that maybe the same experiment could have taken place by carrying around a smartcard, but went on to make the grand argument that there had been many instances through history where people had wondered what the point was, and that thinking out of the box, and sometimes doing something regardless was a useful exercise.

The second more ambitious experiment took place in 2000. Kevin had an array of 1000 electrodes entered into the Median nerve of his left forearm. From this array ran a wire and a connector which could be used to interface with a computer. 10 days after the operation, Kevin was back in the laboratory and analysing the signal patterns emerging from his nervous system. The strength and correlation between what he was physically attempting and nervous pulses was strong and clear, though further work does need to take place to decode the subtle nature of these complex patterns.

Over the three months in which the array remained connected, Kevin completed a number of experiments. An early one with direct practical application involved controlling a robotic hand simply by capturing the nervous signals has he opened and closed his own hand. This experiment was later carried out across the Atlantic, raising the exciting idea of an ultimately distributed and disembodied existence. Other examples included using thought to turn lights and alarms on and off, controlling a wheelchair simply by the power of thought, and navigating Lego cars around a track using hand signals.

Considering the experiments, Kevin noted how people were much more enamoured with his primary goal of using the results of his work to help with physical constraints. The ethical ground for producing an upgraded human were however more shaky and controversial. This is an area I wanted to question him about, had there been more time.

The talk concluded with a brief discussion of the future. In the next ten years, Kevin hopes to complete his first ever thought experiment, involving communication with another individual just by thinking. Some progress had been made previously with regards to feeding electrical signals back into the nervous system to create sensations. The example of remotely gripping an imaginary ball was the most successful, as was some passing nervous impulses through a computer and into electrodes planted in his wife. Further investigation of this process clearly opens the ground for the transmission of thoughts.

I personally enjoyed the talk. It is true that Kevin has his fair share of detractors. mainly due to some grand claims based on his first low tech experiment. However, a few things must be noted on this subject. Firstly, he has demonstrated that the concept of a Cyborg is perhaps possible, even if we are not close yet. This does indeed grab the imagination of the public, who are the ones funding much of the research that goes on in the remainder of AI. Secondly, he was willing to give this a go, which if nothing else has created discussion and reflection that is surely a good thing for the discipline. Cyborgs and upgraded humans will only ever happen if people are brave enough to take larger and more risky steps in this direction. Finally, even beyond his enthusiasm for the subject, he really made it seem like this kind of thing really isn’t that far off. Though in many ways our nervous system and brain is very complex, taken from this angle it seems that it is all crude enough to tap into and harness. To me, that is very exciting!

Submitted: 10/11/2004

Article content copyright © Ben Wootton, 2004.
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