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May 07, 2009

Kevin Warwick works to blur the line between man and machine.

By Matthew Schaeffer

In coming years, according to futurists, humanity and technology are likely to grow increasingly, even intimately interconnected. Bionic appendages could replace lost limbs, optical sensors could allow the blind to see and neural networks could allow us to communicate, as if telepathically, over thousands of miles.
Today, these advancements are mostly the stuff of science fiction. But Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at England’s University of Reading, believes the melding of man and machine may be closer than most people think. And he’s working hard to make it happen.
Although no one attacks the science in Warwick’s many papers in the peer-reviewed journals of his field, his bold, sometimes sensational ideas about the future of man and machines have raised eyebrows among fellow scientists.
Some accuse him of making his boldest claims—that robots could take over from humans by mid-century, for example—just to draw attention to his work. Others fault his apocalyptic visions for casting the field of artificial intelligence (AI) in a negative light.
“Some of Warwick’s claims were getting a lot of very sensational media coverage,” says Dr. Alan Bundy, a professor at the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. “This was upsetting the AI community, because it was very negative press from our point of view—saying there are huge dangers in this field, and we shouldn’t let these scientists continue their work.”
Warwick makes a very different point—that scientists must push back the boundaries if only to see that humans benefit from technology instead of being victimized by it.
“There is the possibility out there of intelligent machines—kind of Terminator-style robots—being the ones in command,” says Warwick. “Humans would become a sub-species dominated by the machines.”
He is not alone in raising such a specter, which was one of the subjects of futurist Ray Kurzweil’s recent book, The Singularity is Near.
But Warwick believes that dire scenario can be avoided. “The cyborg—part human, part machine—is a realistic way to go ahead, upgrading humans, increasing the memory of the human brain, increasing the communications possibilities, communicating brain to brain, thinking in many dimensions, and so on.”
Continuing that thought, he wanders into the generalizations some of his fellow scientists mock. “I think there are dangers, threats, if you are a human and you want to remain a human. I certainly don’t. I want to become a cyborg…However, if you are a human and you want to stay human, then enjoy life while you can. It is not going to last much longer.”

Cyber-implants and Rat Brains

Cybernetics, which he describes as “technology and humans working together in a system,” has been Warwick’s passion since he began reading sci-fi stories as a child.
“As a kid, one [story] that really inspired me was The Terminal Man, which is a Michael Crichton story about a guy having electrodes put into his brain,” Warwick explains. “Later, when I got my job as professor of cybernetics, it actually gave me the opportunity to try out some of the things that I had been reading about as a teenager.”
Using himself as the subject of his experiments has led to some of Warwick’s most controversial findings and press coverage.
Warwick received his first cybernetic implant in 1998. It was a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip in his left arm, which signaled computers at his lab to perform simple tasks such as opening doors and turning on lights.
In another experiment, which led The Guardian to dub him “the world’s first cyborg,” he had an electrode array attached to the median nerve fibers in his left arm, allowing him to control a robot hand in Reading via the Internet from a lab in New York City.
He also linked his nervous system through a radio transceiver and a computer interface to that of his wife, who had a similar implant.
“When she moved her hand—tick, tick—my brain received pulses of current every time,” says Warwick. “So it was like a telegraphic communication from her nervous system to my nervous system—like a Morse code.”
His latest project, which he calls Gordon, is building the first robot to be operated by what he describes as a biological brain (see sidebar).
“With this project—the rat brain in a robot—I think one of the things you have to say when you first look at it is, it’s alive—the culture is actually growing, the brain is developing. OK, it’s in a robot body. But to call it artificial intelligence? Well, maybe it is. But it is real intelligence. So it is a different form of intelligence. It’s very different from robotics.”

Cyborgs and Us

As a British schoolmaster might ask at this point, what’s the meaning of all this?
Now comes the Warwick who drives some of his colleagues crazy.
“I think we can see dramatic changes in the military domain in terms of autonomous fighting machines,” he says. “By the time we get to 2020, which is not far away, we are going to have a plethora of them.”
He may well be right, of course, since drone aircraft already operate effectively in combat. The problem is that popular culture (see sidebar) encourages an interpretation of his vision as a platoon of Terminators.
More conventionally, Warwick also predicts less sensational advances in cybernetics.
“We are seeing, particularly in the medical world, technology applied to the human brain. We see that already with Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy…I think that in the foreseeable future—within the next few years—we will see more technology operating with its own artificial intelligence. But we will also see more humans enhancing themselves with technology.”

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