"I, cyborg" Kevin Warwick: Part man, part machine, all show

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 system.

The 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 a half.

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 array
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 this.

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 brain modification.

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.


[Kevin Warwick's Website]

Digital, multimedia and cybernetic art coming to Sheffield soon [Lovebytes festival]


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