Kevin Warwick is "the cybernetic pioneer
who is upgrading the human body; starting with himself".
This is the blurb on his new book, which is the first thing
he tells about in his lecture. Kevin Warwick has come to the
Law department to talk about the practicalities and ethics
of enhancing humans using machines integrated with the nervous
lecture is delayed by ten minutes due to laptop problems,
which I think tells me more about the practicalities of interfacing
with computers than Kevin Warwick tells me in an hour and
In March 2002 Kevin Warwick had an electrode
array implanted into the medial nerve of his left arm near
the wrist, connected to a socket which emerged from the arm
near his elbow. The electrodes allowed him to send electrical
signals to a computer by clenching his hand and to receive
electrical signals that were sent via the socket (felt as
a tingling in the fingers).
Sending and receiving current via the electrode
allowed Prof. Warwick to control a robot hand so sensitively
that he could grip things without crushing them while blindfolded.
He even traveled to America and used the internet to control
the robot hand in the UK - giving him a transatlantic nervous
system. In another experiment he had the chip receive signals
from an ultrasound device, allowing him to use echo-location
to detect the presence of objects in front of him.
Non of this is remarkable scientifically, but
it is evocative of the potential of human augmentation by
machines. Prof. Warwick began his lecture by eulogising the
abilities that computers have that we don't; the speed and
accuracy of communication, calculation and memory, the ability
to perceive things outside of the realm of the human senses.
"Think how humans could be enhanced if we could add these
abilities to our brains" asks Warwick.
Fortunately for those of us who are hard of
thinking we don't have to look far to see that these enhancements
have already happened. We are already cybernetic, using our
culture and the artifacts it produces to enhance our individual
neural function. This is done without the clumsy and painful
implants that Kevin Warwick is talking about and so fluid
that we do it almost without noticing. I can use the internet
for find out anything I want in minutes. I can calculate accurately
and at super-human speeds using a calculator. I can communicate
across oceans using a mobile phone. All of these things are
machines that enhance our cognitive abilities, but unlike
cybernetic implants if they crash we can just dump 'em and
get another one. The interface between my fingers a keyboard
is a thousand times more useful, robust, elegant and easy
than the interface between Kevin Warwick's medial nerve and
a silicon chip. Why bother with cybernetic implants at all?
A chip like Warwick's can control a wheelchair
- as Warwick astutely demonstrated. But then so can a human
hand. What is the benefit of the chip? When the technology
progresses we'll be able to control machines using signals
direct from the brain. Is Prof. Warwick doing any research
on this? No. His website boasts over 300 'academic publications'
a number which is fine if you count conference posters and
letters in the Sunday Times, but is a fraction of that if
you actually check the number of peer reviewed publications
logged by the Institute of Scientific Information. His most
publicised work, the cybernetic experiments, isn't peer reviewed
and is crude compared to work by other
research groups (which, incidentally, he dismisses off-handedly
in his lecture).
Warwick doesn't discuss why he had the electrode
array implanted surgically when it could have functioned equally
well recording signals from the surface of the skin. He doesn't
discuss the inevitable nerve damage that results from such
implants, nor present any evidence from tests assessing this
damage to the sensitivity and dexterity in own his hand. He
doesn't mention in any way the problems that would result
from inserting implants directly in the brain. Maybe this
is fair enough, given that he hasn't done any research on
When questioned about the future of permanent
implants Warwick admits that the "reliability of mechanisms
becomes more important". This is an understatement, even
if just contrasted with the failure of his own powerpoint
demonstration to start correctly or run the videos he had
included. The reason we don't calculate as well as a calculator,
even though we are massively more complex, is because we have
so much invested in being practical and robust.
Disappointingly Prof. Warwick doesn't provide
any substantive discussion of the ethics surrounding cybernetic
enhancement - merely relating various controversies that he
has become embroiled in on his relentless quest for publicity.
He asked many questions but provided no answers and no substantive
arguments for any conclusions. The issues surrounding cybernetics
will need to be dealt with at some point, although probably
not before we need to deal with parallel issues relating to
the ethics of genetic modification and drug-based
Prof. Warwick does a useful job in raising issues
in the public consciousness. He may perhaps encourage funding
for projects which will genuinely help the disabled. He may
perhaps encourage debate on the ethics of enhancement of normal
humans. But currently his scientific contribution to cybernetic
enhancement is minimal.
Thanks to Dr Mark Humphries and Prof. Pete
Redgrave for advice.
Digital, multimedia and cybernetic art coming
to Sheffield soon [Lovebytes