The Cyborg speaks again

By : |September 24, 2008 0

He is not very impressed with the‘Big Bang’ project. He does not hold with the theory of ‘global warming’. He feels that the chip brought him closer to his wife better than any flowers or rings. He uses his cellphone only when absolutely necessary. He opines that scientists must listen but balance as well.

According to him machines could become a threat and if humans do not upgrade to be Cyborgs then that’s the end of it. He finds IIT graduates as good as any others in the world.

And he just also happens to be world’s first Cyborg. Professor Kevin Warwick from the University of Reading in the UK is a scientist that not only houses a chip in his skin but also a lot of nerve, pluck, arteries of gushing ideas, veins of maverick thoughts and much more.

This passionate scientist who in August 1998 got a surgically implanted silicon chip transponder in his forearm and then in March 2002 was ready for another one, this time one hundred electrode array into the median nerve fibres of the left arm, needs not much introduction.

Professor Kevin Warwick, born in Coventry, UK got his first degree at Aston University, followed by a PhD and a research post at Imperial College, London and subsequently held positions at Oxford, Newcastle and Warwick universities before being offered the Chair at Reading.

His research interests include robotics and Cybernetics in particular apart from areas like artificial intelligence, control, and biomedical engineering. His list of laurels lists higher doctorates (DScs) by Imperial College and the Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague, The Future of Health technology Award from MIT (USA), The IEE Achievement Medal, a place etched in 1999 and 2002 Guinness Book of Records and so on.

It’s not surprising that Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame calls him "Britain’s leading prophet of the Robot Age". And in this exclusive interview with CyberMedia News, Kevin talks without mincing any words or chips, on various issues around the realm of cybernetics, cyborgs, human Vs machines, words Vs signals, ethics, evolution and science. Read on, chip in and enjoy.

It’s been ten years since Cyborg 1.0. How close has the reality come to sci-fi movies and human fancy? What are the possibilities of Cybernetics in a world fraught with terrorism, global warming and human mishaps?

Well we are witnessing tracking of objects and much closer monitoring of humans – it will not be long before we see implant technology used for human tracking. We will also see cybernetic technology used to help a lot more people with disabilities – paralyzed individuals to drive themselves around for example. But this is real science; it affects us all.

I am afraid that I do not hold with the theory of "global warming" – there will always be climate change and from the point of view of someone in a wet-cum-cold England things appear to be getting colder, not hotter. Big thing here is – do we know what we are doing that is bringing about climate change? At present the answer to this is NO.

How has the Cyborg concept and endeavor evolved over the years since the chip implant? What is the crystal ball showing? And how does the progress in this realm fit in with the ambitious space projects, medical and bio-identification application?

We are now investigating brain-computer links, in particular an implant into the brain, which acts bi-directionally. This probably will mean retraining neurons within the brain to alter their basic functioning.

Crystal ball is showing the next experiment to be six to eight years away with myself receiving a brain implant – a main reason being for bi-directional communication. Clearly this is different to space projects – I believe it is far more important as it really changes what it means to be human.

In context to Project Cyborg 2.0, are thought signals progressing vis-à-vis speech signals? Did your experiments accomplish the objectives you set out?

Yes we did achieve a basic form of telegraphic communication. I believe it is quite possible therefore to transmit signals directly between two (or more) human brains – as long as the signals are learnt then I cannot see that we will need words any more – but it really will open up the possibility of communicating more abstract concepts, feelings, ideas, colours, images etc

You once said in an interview that "I think by 2100 people would be able to communicate by thought signals alone with no need for telephones or old fashioned signaling". How do you view this prognosis today?

I think it will be well before 2100. It is such a powerful means of communication and the technology to do it is just about in place. We are about to enter an extremely exciting time for science.

As the world’s first Cyborg, what were your experiences and encounters vis-à-vis your personal life?

The experience of communicating in a new way with my wife brought us even closer together – it’s not a bad thing to do for a relationship – much better than buying flowers or a ring!

When the implant was in place we were shocked one day to witness enormous electrical signals appearing on my nervous system – these turned out to be due to a text message coming through on one of my researcher’s cell phones. Since that time when I am on a bus or train and am close to someone whose cell phone rings, I tend to move away from them as quickly as I can. I now only use my cell phone when it is absolutely necessary.

If one goes by the definition of Cyborg as ‘a human dependent on technology’, has most of the world population skewed itself to being Cyborgs, given our increasing reliance on technology and computers in everyday life?

Some philosophers believe this – we all have become more linked with, more dependants on technology and as a result our brains will have changed their functioning. For me though – when people think of a cyborg it is more a human who has been enhanced in some way (from a human norm) and the technology is integral to them, it is part of their body – not sure if anyone else fits that bill.  

What’s your reckoning of the technological evolution via cloning, cybernetics, Human genome initiatives etc in comparison to biological evolution in light of the ethical concerns, pitfalls and sustainability debate it is subject to?

I think it is right that there are ethical concerns and it is up to scientists to listen to such concerns and act as they see fit. I have certainly modified my research in light of ethical suggestions. However, some issues are delicate – the robot with a rat brain project involves taking neurons from a rat fetus – some people have a problem with that – but to stop our research would be wrong I feel as the results could have a profound effect on the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is difficult for scientists but we must both listen and draw a reasonable balance.

Would Cyborgs replace machines or replace humans? Will it enhance Human’s capabilities via machines or vice versa? What about the possible Human Vs Machine scenario? Can Machine ever close the gap between a human and a computer? And if so, apart from the many upsides like no need to communicate or carry any information or documents, having extra-perceptual capabilities and other medical applications; what about downsides like hacking into someone’s skill-sets or abusing the power of telepathy?

I think Cyborgs are the next evolutionary (in a technical sense) step on from humans – because of intellectual superiority then they probably will replace humans. Machines are certainly gaining in their intelligence and could become a potential threat anyway. If humans do not upgrade to be Cyborgs then that’s the end of it anyway.

There are still a lot of technical questions regarding Cyborgs to be sorted – but most likely this will happen for commercial benefit – for example it would not be nice for hackers to get in to your brain signals through an implant – clearly security needs to be a lot stricter than it is now.

Do you think that Cybernetics has the potential of a Frankenstein effect?

Yes – as you can see with our rat brain robot – a cultured brain in a robot body.

Your observations on India in the realm of scientific endeavors, research and Cybernetics in particular?

I think there are enormous opportunities now in India – this cyborg techno logy is very new and it is the countries that embrace it that will benefit most from it. There is considerable interest in this whole area in India and I feel the IITs in particular are very well placed. The young graduates appearing from the IITs are as good (if not better) than any other technical graduates in the world – many of them are extremely impressive.

What’s your view on the Big Bang experiment and all the buzz, debate and excitement it has generated?

The Big Bang experiment has attracted a lot of publicity. But it is an extremely expensive experiment and I am really not sure what will come out of it – I am not particularly impressed. Some people have said that it will prove that God does not exist – I completely disagree – it will prove no such thing. Only God would himself be able to prove that he doesn’t exist – now that is interesting philosophy – not (like Descartes) to try to prove that you do exist, but rather to prove that you do not exist.

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