Cybernetics: The Cyborg

Feature

Cybernetics: The Cyborg

Earlier this year Kevin Warwick became the first human to plug his nervous system in to the Internet. Nathalie Towner caught up with the cybernetics professor to find out if the experiment was a success and discover what the future holds.

Superhumans who can connect directly to the Internet no longer belong to the realms of science fiction - the pilot version has already been let loose on the streets of Reading.

Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, has now reverted to his fully human state but for three months earlier this year he became the world's first cyborg - part-man, part-machine.

This was not Warwick's first foray into the futuristic world of chip implants and human machines. Xtra! interviewed him two years ago, when he spoke of the chip he had implanted in his arm for nine days that was linked to the IT in his faculty building. Doors opened for him, lights came on and the computer wished him good morning as he entered the building. But this was only the beginning.

"This whole experience opened my eyes to what was possible," says Warwick. "Before this I was considering progressing to a link-up with the muscles but then I thought muscles would be a waste of time, it would be far more exciting to go straight for the nervous system."

If successful, the implications for future cyborgs would be enormous. By linking a human brain with technology, potentially the person would not have to learn mathematics because calculations could be done at high speed by a computer and downloaded via the electronic implant. The brain would also be able to access data held in computer storage facilities. According to Warwick, if a cyborg wanted to recall something it would just download the required piece of information, to the point where it could relive memories of events it had never experienced.

It took four years of hard work at Reading University's cybernetics department before the technology was ready for the experiment.

"Most of the time was spent on the actual design of the implant, we had to work out what technology we were going to use," explains Warwick. "Initially we set out thinking that we could use a complete implant but then we realised this would create problems with the power supply. As time went on we realised it would be a crazy thing to do. Because we would not know in advance what components to use, we would have to reopen my arm."

In the end it was decided that the best solution was for some of the implant to be external.

Warwick was well aware of the potential dangers of such an operation. Implanting the electrode into his nervous system via the median nerve in his arm could cause permanent damage, and there was no way to predict how his brain would react to the electrical current.

As well as worries for his own safety he also had to consider his wife Irena, who was due to have a chip implant herself to see if two nervous systems could communicate with each other. Her operation was scheduled for a few weeks after her husband's implant to allow enough time to see if everything was running smoothly.

Warwick eventually went under the knife at the beginning of March. By the end of the operation he had array pins directly linking his nerves to fine wires coming out of his skin and onto an external connecting pad.

"The surgeons would have preferred to have the chip fully implanted. If there were no wires coming out of my body it would have seriously reduced the chances of infection," he says. "But we had to have the connector pad on the outside of the arm, and as time went on I didn't notice it, although I could not have a bath and I had to be careful not to rip my nerves out by catching the wires on something."

Warwick had to wait six weeks before he could commence any experiments. As soon as he was given the go ahead his colleague plugged an interface unit in to the connecting pad to first measure the signal from his nervous system and then try to stimulate his nervous system from the unit.

"When we first started simulating my nervous system the results were so, so. We did not know how much current to put through my system," says Warwick. "Eighty micro amps eventually seemed to do the trick, and I could feel about three quarters of the pulses. However, after three months of having the implant I could feel everything because my brain had become totally tuned in."

Once Warwick was up and running, the experiments could begin. After various trials in Reading, Warwick headed to New York where he set up a direct, electronic connection across the Internet between his nervous system in New York and the laboratory in Reading.

"Two webcams were set up at either end and a Kyberd articulated hand in Reading was connected via the Internet," he says. "I moved my hand in New York and I could see the robot hand in Reading doing the same - all of this was done over the Internet."

This event was hailed as a major breakthrough, but the most anticipated experiment was still to come.

Irena underwent surgery to have an electrode inserted and was immediately whisked off to the laboratory at Reading University. Once it was ascertained that signals were travelling from Irena's brain via her nervous system and the electrode to the PC, Warwick connected himself to another PC. The two PCs were then connected via the Internet for the two nervous systems to communicate.

The experiment was a success and electronic signals were passed from brain to brain. Each time Irena moved her hand Warwick felt a charge run down the inside of his left index finger. "It was amazing, it was our secret communication," he says.

The success of this experiment got Warwick thinking about how, in the future, it would be possible to transmit signals from brain to brain and bring about some form of thought communication.

"For me the future is about either focusing on emotional signals or, most probably, looking at thought communication through brain implants. I need to find out where it is best to connect up to, where the best signals are. I see us downloading information from the brain within a 10-15-year timeframe," he says.

Although the professor estimates that he will be about 60 years old by the time it is possible to insert a brain implant, he says he would have no reservations about being the first to try it.

Warwick has been surprised by how emotionally attached he became to his implant. "I had not expected the way it would affect me mentally, I felt it was a part of me," he explains. "For three months I was a walking laboratory, I missed it desperately when it was gone, although I did jump in the bath as soon as it was taken out. I must have had the smelliest arm in the whole of the UK."

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This was first published in August 2002

 

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