Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, opened Reasons to be Creative with a keynote talk on his research info artificial intelligence, control, robotics and biomedical engineering.
He has often been called the world’s first Cyborg and with good reason: Kevin has literally plugged his nervous system directly into the internet by means of an implant in his arm and experienced extrasensory (ultrasonic) input. He has even received his wife’s brainwaves straight into his nervous system and literally felt her thoughts. Oh, and did we mention; he’s controlled a robotic hand hundreds of miles away with his mind? Well, he has, and a whole lot more.
It all began when Professor Warwick had a glass capsule containing an electromagnetic coil and a silicon chip inserted in his arm. The chip, in conjunction with actually rather simple equipment, much of it from the days of Faraday, recognised him and turned lights on and off when he enters and exits room and can unlock and open doors as he approaches. This technology, which was criticised at the time, has now gone so far as to be employed in a nightclub called Bio Beach Club in Rotterdam, where it opens access to exclusive areas and auto-charges for drinks without the need for cash.
Impressive as they were, Warwick argues that these early experiments are not truly ‘Cyborg’ by definition. However, once he was able to create a bi-directional interface between an organic organism and a computer the term Cyborg began to have a real world meaning.
Wiring himself to the mainframe
Fascinatingly, once this connection was established and once they were able to wire this connection successfully the entire scope of the internet and any other applicable network was open for connection and sharing.
This was first achieved through culturing neurons from rat embryos onto a dish, which once incubated, began to send out their neurons to begin firing, connecting and communicating. These messy little ‘brains’ were able to operate under basic instincts and even learn habits and, perhaps most startlingly; developed personalities whilst controlling simple robots. This closed loop interface between a biological network and a robot paved the way for even more fascinating break throughs, including furthering the understanding of how memory is created and stored which could be hugely beneficial to Alzheimer’s sufferers.
Another main area of discovery was that the brain and body component parts do not have to be in the same place; as long as there is some kind of network connection established. Warwick argues that it is simply through evolution that our brains and bodies inhabit the same space.
This has led to experiments in which Warwick himself wired his own nervous system to a Utah Array (or as it is often called the Brain Gate) implant which links him directly to a computer.
This allowed him to not only send out brainwave impulses but also receive them from his wife. He conducted an experiment where he was even able to influence light up jewellery by his mood alone. When he was calm it would appear blue, but if he was agitated or excited it’d turn red and flash. Could this be the future of lie detectors, security, baby monitors or even monitoring the wellbeing of elderly relatives?
Although there are some seriously exciting applications and we can’t ignore the potential for fulfilling multiple sci-fi dreams (and possibly nightmares) with this technology – currently, it has paved the way for an already blossoming array of medical advancements and therapies.
One such therapy is called Deep Brain Stimulation and has already been used to treat epilepsy and depression but has had most impact for Parkinson’s sufferers. An implant/electrode is positioned inside the brain, in the sub thalamic nucleus where 4-6 electrodes pass a current to counteract the disease. It allows almost completely paralysed sufferers to move, walk, speak and grip. The almost instant transformation is jaw dropping.
The implications of these emerging Cyborg technologies for therapies such as limb replacement are also impressive to say the least. Warwick has already demonstrated his ability to control a robotic hand from hundreds of miles away from over the internet through brainwaves and his nervous system. In fact, the hand was also able to feed back to Warwick’s nervous system allowing him to feel and adjust the pressure he was exerting in the hand’s grip and dexterity. This could allow the paralysed or those missing a limb far greater and more seamless control over their world.
Another interesting experiment allowed people, using sonar and a magnetic implant in their finger tip, to quite literally experience a brand new sense; they were able to feel the presence and distance of objects in their surrounding environment through a series of increasing vibrations in their finger. In fact, it takes only 6 weeks for the human brain to fully adapt to a new sense, making this potentially hugely impactful for those with partial or complete blindness.
Rise of the Superhumans
Warwick believes brain to brain communication is next and this will signal the phasing out and redundancy of what he calls “archaic, low efficiency communication types, such as speech”.
He foresees the upload and download of memories and information to computers and the rise of Superhumans with super senses, memory and knowledge. Not to mention a revolution in the way in which we communicate and connect with one another and, of course the technologies that surround us.
What do you think about this research and how do you see it being applied to and/or changing the world?