Kevin Warwick outlines his plan to become one with his computer
by Kevin Warwick
I was born human. But this was an accident
of fate - a condition merely of time and place.
I believe it's something we have the power
to change. I will tell you why.
In August 1998, a silicon chip was implanted in my arm, allowing a computer
to monitor me as I moved through the halls and offices of the Department
of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, just west of London, where
I've been a professor since 1988. My implant communicated via radio waves
with a network of antennas throughout the department that in turn transmitted
the signals to a computer programmed to respond to my actions.
At the main entrance, a voice box operated by the computer said "Hello"
when I entered; the computer detected my progress through the building,
opening the door to my lab for me as I approached it and switching on the
lights. For the nine days the implant was in place, I performed seemingly
magical acts simply by walking in a particular direction. The aim of this
experiment was to determine whether information could be transmitted to
and from an implant. Not only did we succeed, but the trial demonstrated
how the principles behind cybernetics could perform in real-life applications.
Eighteen months from now, or possibly sooner, I will conduct a follow-up
experiment with a new implant that will send signals back and forth between
my nervous system and a computer. I don't know how I will react to unfamiliar
signals transmitted to my brain, since nothing quite like this has ever
before been attempted. But if this test succeeds, with no complications,
then we'll go ahead with the placement of a similar implant in my wife,
My research team is made up of 20
scientists, including two who work directly with me: Professor Brian Andrews,
a neural-prosthesis specialist who recently joined our project from the
University of Alberta in Canada, and professor William Harwin,
a cybernetics expert and former codirector of the Rehabilitation Robotics
Laboratory at the University of Delaware in the US. The others are a mixture
of faculty and researchers, divided into three teams charged with developing
intelligent networks, robotics and sensors, and biomedical signal processing
- i.e., creating software to read the signals the implant receives from
my nervous system and to condition that data for retransmission.
We are in discussions with Dr. Ali Jamous, a neurosurgeon at Stoke Mandeville
Hospital in nearby Aylesbury, to insert my next implant, although we're
still sorting out the final details. Ordinarily, there might be a problem
getting a doctor to consider this type of surgery, but my department has
a long-standing research link with the hospital, whose spinal-injuries
unit does a lot of advanced work in neurosurgery. We've collaborated on
a number of projects to help people overcome disabilities through technical
aids: an electric platform for children who use wheelchairs, a walking
frame for people with spinal injuries, and a self-navigating wheelchair.
While Jamous has his own research agenda, we are settling on a middle ground
that will satisfy both parties' scientific goals.
My first implant was inserted by Dr. George Boulos at Tilehurst Surgery
in Reading into the upper inside of my left arm, beneath the inner layer
of skin and on top of the muscle. The next device will be connected to
the nerve fibers in my left arm, positioned about halfway between my elbow
and shoulder. (It doesn't matter which arm carries the implant; I chose
my left because I'm right-handed, and I hope I will suffer less manual
impairment if any problems arise during the experiment.) Most of the nerves
in this part of the body are connected to the hand, and send and receive
the electronic impulses that control dexterity, feeling, even emotions.
A lot of these signals are traveling here at any given time: This nerve
center carries more information than any other part of the anatomy, aside
from the spine and the head (in the optic and auditory nerves), and so
is large and quite strong. Moreover, very few of the nerves branch off
to muscles and other parts of the upper arm - it's like a freeway with
only a few on- and off-ramps, providing a cleaner pathway to the nervous
While we ultimately may need to place implants nearer to the brain
- into the spinal cord or onto the optic nerve, where there is a more powerful
setup for transmitting and receiving specific complex sensory signals -
the arm is an ideal halfway point.
This implant, like the first, will be encased in a glass tube. We chose
glass because it's fairly inert and won't become toxic or block radio signals.
There is an outside chance that the glass will break, which could cause
serious internal injuries or prove fatal, but our previous experiment showed
glass to be pretty rugged, even when it's frequently jolted or struck.
One end of the glass tube contains the power supply - a copper coil energized
by radio waves to produce an electric current. In the other end, three
mini printed circuit boards will transmit and receive signals. The implant
will connect to my body through a band that wraps around the nerve fibers
- it looks like a little vicar's collar - and is linked by a very thin
wire to the glass capsule.
The chips in the implant will receive signals from the collar and send
them to a computer instantaneously. For example, when I move a finger,
an electronic signal travels from my brain to activate the muscles and
tendons that operate my hand. The collar will pick up that signal en route.
Nerve impulses will still reach the finger, but we will tap into them just
as though we were listening in on a telephone line. The signal from the
implant will be analog, so we'll have to convert it to digital in order
to store it in the computer. But then we will be able to manipulate it
and send it back to my implant.
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No processing will be done inside the implant. Rather, it will only send
and receive signals, much like a telephone handset sends and receives sound
waves. It's true that onboard power would increase our options
for programming more complex tasks into the implant, but that would require
a much larger device. While a 1-inch-long glass tube isn't obtrusive, I
really don't fancy an object the size of an orange built into my arm.
We'll tap into my nerve fibers and try a
progression of experiments once my new implant is switched on. One of the
first will be to record and identify signals associated with motion. When
I waggle my left index finger, it will send a corresponding signal via
the implant to the computer, where it will be recorded and stored. Next,
we can transmit this signal to the implant, hoping to generate an action
similar to the original. I will consider the test a fantastic success if
we can record a movement, then reproduce it when we send the signals back
to the arm.
Pain also provides a distinctly clear electronic signal on the nervous
system as it moves from its point of origin to the brain. We intend to
find out what happens if that signal is transmitted to the computer and
then played back again. Will I feel the same sensation, or something more
akin to the phantom pains amputees "feel" in their missing limbs? Our brains
associate an ache with a specific point on the body; it will also be
to see whether this sensation can be manipulated by slightly modifying
the signal in the computer and then trying to send it to another area.
When the new chip is in place, we will tap into my nerve fibers and try out a whole new range of senses.
We will then attempt this exercise with emotional signals. When I'm happy,
we'll record that signal. Then, if my mood changes the next day, we'll
play the happy signal back and see what happens.
I am most curious to find out whether implants could open up a whole new
range of senses. For example, we can't normally process signals like
X rays, or ultrasound. Infrared detects visible heat given off by
a warm body, though our eyes can't see light in this part of the spectrum.
But what if we fed infrared signals into the nervous system, bypassing
the eyes? Would I be able to learn how to perceive them? Would I feel or
even "see" the warmth? Or would my brain simply be unable to cope? We don't
have any idea - yet.
The potential for medical breakthroughs in existing disabilities is
important. Might it be possible to add an extra route for more senses or
to provide alternative pathways for blind or deaf people to "see" or "hear"
with ultrasonic and infrared wavelengths? Perhaps a blind person could
navigate around objects with ultrasonic radar, much the way bats do. Robots
have been programmed to perform this action already, and neuroscientists
have not dismissed the idea for humans.
But few people have ever had their nervous systems linked to a computer,
so the concept of sensing the world around us using more than our natural
abilities is still science fiction. I'm hoping to change that.
People have asked me, too, whether it would be possible to get high from
drugs, store those signals, and then return them to the nervous system
later to reproduce the sensation. To that end, I plan to have a glass or
two of wine and record my body's reaction, captured in exactly the same
way I "saved" movement or pain. The following day, I will play back the
recorded signals. As my brain tries to make sense of these, it might search
for past experiences, trying to put things in terms of what it already
knows. Thus, when my brain receives the "drunk" signal, it might believe
it is indeed intoxicated. Varying on that theme, perhaps particular electronic
patterns can be transmitted to the nervous system to bring about a sensation
equivalent to that of drinking bourbon or rum.
If this type of experiment works, I can foresee researchers learning to
send antidepressant stimulation or even contraception or vaccines in a
similar manner. We have the potential to alter the whole face of medicine,
to abandon the concept of feeding people chemical treatments and cures
and instead achieve the desired results electronically. Cyberdrugs and
cybernarcotics could very well cure cancer, relieve clinical depression,
or perhaps even be programmed as a little pick-me-up on a particularly
We don't know how much the brain can adapt to unfamiliar information coming
in through the nerve branches. Our hunch is that the brain of a young child
is pliable, so that it might well be able to take in new sensory information
in its own right. In response
to the additional input, the nerve fibers linked to an implant might begin
to grow thicker and more powerful with the ability to carry more and different
kinds of information.
A 45-year-old brain like mine is another matter. In the absence of any
previous sensory reference, will my brain be able to process signals that
don't correspond precisely to sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch? It
will probably deal with something like X-ray stimulation in terms of the
signals it thinks most similar. Depending on its best guess, I might feel
pain, tension, or excitement. But we want to avoid feeding in too much
noise, as that could be distinctly risky. I do worry that certain kinds
of raw input could make me crazy. For me, in any case, all these experiments
are worth doing just to see what might happen.
If the results aren't encouraging, then - what the hell - at least I tried.
I plan to keep my next implant in place for a
minimum of a week, possibly up to two. If the experiments are successful,
we would then place implants into two people at the same time. We'd like
to send movement and emotion signals from one person to the other, possibly
via the Internet. My wife, Irena, has bravely volunteered to go ahead with
his-and-hers implants. The way she puts it is that
if anyone is going to jack into my limbic system - to know definitively
when I'm feeling happy, depressed, angry, or even sexually aroused - she
wants it to be her.
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Irena and I will investigate the whole range of emotion and sensation.
If I move a hand or finger, then send those signals to Irena, will she
make the same movement? I think it likely she'll feel something. Might
she feel the same pain as I do? If I sprained my ankle, could I send the
signal to Irena to make her feel as though she has injured herself?
We know that different people have varying emotional responses to the same
stimulus. If I send a particular signal to her, will she recognize it in
the same way? Based on
my own reaction to having my emotional impulses replayed on my nervous
system, we will have a preliminary idea of what Irena might experience,
but we are entering progressively uncharted territory once we attempt to
relay prerecorded signals. What her brain can comprehend in terms of my
neural impulses is completely unknown. Yet if Irena's brain can make out,
even roughly, my incoming signals, then I believe her own stored knowledge
will be able to decipher the information into a recognizable sensation
We would also like to demonstrate how the signals could be sent over the
Internet. One of us will travel to New York, and the other will remain
in the UK. Then we'll send real-time movement and emotion signals from
person to person across the continents.
I am terrified of heights. If I'm staying on the 16th floor of a hotel
in the US and I transmit my signals to Irena, how will they affect her?
How far could we go in transmitting feelings and desires? I want to find
out. What if the other person became sexually aroused? Could we record
signals at the height of our arousal, then play these back and relive the
experience? (As keen as I am to know the answer here, I have difficulty
imagining what the scientific press might make of it.)
Will we evolve into a cyborg community? Linking people via chip implants to superintelligent machines seems a natural progression - creating, in effect, superhumans.
We are not the first group to link
computers with the human nervous system via implants. Dr. Ross Davis' team
at the Neural Engineering Clinic in Augusta, Maine, has been trying to
use the technology to treat patients whose central nervous systems have
been damaged or affected by diseases like multiple sclerosis, and has been
able to achieve basic controls over, for example, muscle function.
In 1997, a widely publicized project at the University of Tokyo attached
some of a cockroach's motor neurons to a microprocessor. Artificial signals
sent to the neurons through electrodes were then used to involuntarily
propel the cockroach, despite what it might have chosen to do. Also, in
an experiment published last summer by John Chapin at the MCP Hahnemann
School of Medicine in Philadelphia and Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University,
electrodes were implanted into rats' brains and used to transmit signals
so that the rats merely had to "think" about pressing a lever in order
to receive a treat. Researchers were interested to learn that the signals
indicating what the rats were about to do appeared in a different part
of the brain than the one usually associated with planning.
And I'm amazed by results from a team at Emory University in Atlanta, which
to great international interest has implanted a transmitting device into
the brain of a stroke patient. After the motor neurons were linked to silicon,
the patient was able to move a cursor on a computer monitor just by thinking
about it. That means thought signals were directly transmitted to a computer
and used to operate it, albeit in a rudimentary way. The Emory team is
looking to gradually extend the range of controls carried out.
As for self-experimentation, physicians and scientists have done this
history. During the early '50s, US Air Force colonel John Stapp repeatedly
strapped his body to rocket sleds and propelled himself to more than 600
mph before hitting the brakes to stop in less than 2 seconds. The military
physician's study of the human body's tolerance for crash forces helped
improve automobile, airplane, and spacecraft safety. Although Stapp survived
his perilous experiments, he suffered eye damage, a hernia, a concussion,
and broken bones and permanently impaired his sense of balance.
In 1984, Barry Marshall, a resident at Royal Perth Hospital in Australia,
swallowed an ulcer-causing bacteria to show that the organism, and not
stress, caused the abdominal ailment. Then there was Werner Forssmann,
a German physician so obsessed with learning the intricacies of the human
heart that in 1929 he inserted a catheter into an artery in his arm and
snaked it all the way to his right auricle. In 1892, another German doctor,
Max von Pettenkofer, drank a culture of the bacterium that causes cholera
to show that environmental factors must also be present before the germ
produces the disease. He was sick for about a week but lived - pure luck,
of course, since we now know his hypothesis was erroneous. And Isaac Newton
stuck needles into his eyes - for what reason, I'm not entirely sure.
As for me, I am not a foolish scientist putting my life in harm's way.
In fact, my next implant will be the culmination of my professional work:
working for British Telecom, studying computer engineering and robotics,
and teaching the principles of cybernetics.
I have been involved with technology all my life, and now I will be able
to take my research one step further.
Admittedly, I'm putting the neurological and medical aspects of the operation
in the hands of the surgeon. I realize the chance of infection is higher
with my second implant, since it will touch the nerve bundles. And connecting
to the nervous system could also lead to permanent nerve damage, resulting
in the loss of feelings or movement, or continual pain. But I am putting
aside my fears and accepting my less-than-absolute understanding of the
technical and psychological ramifications inherent in our attempt.
I want to know.
I believe this desire - this urge to explore - is intrinsically human.
My entire team is venturing into the unknown with me in order to bring
humans and technology together in a way that has never been attempted.
The excitement of looking over the horizon into a new world - the world
of cyborgs - far outweighs the risks. Just think: Anything a computer link
can help operate or interface with could be controllable via implants:
airplanes, locomotives, tractors, machinery, cash registers, bank accounts,
spreadsheets, word processing, and intelligent homes. In each case, merely
by moving a finger, one could cause such systems to operate. It will, of
course, require the requisite programs to be set up, just as keyboard entries
are now required. But such programming, along with the implant owner learning
a few tricks, will be relatively trivial exercises.
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Linking up in this way could allow for computer intelligence to be hooked
more directly into the brain, allowing humans immediate access to the Internet,
enabling phenomenal math capabilities and computer memory. Will you need
to learn any math if you can call up a computer merely by your thoughts?
Must you remember anything at all when you can access a world Internet
I can envision a future when we send signals so that we don't have to speak.
Thought communication will place telephones firmly in the history books.
Philosophers point to language in humans as being an important part of
our culture and who we are. Certainly, language has had everything to do
with human development. But language is merely a tool we use to translate
our thoughts. In the future, we won't need to code thoughts into language
- we will uniformly send symbols and ideas and concepts without speaking.
We will probably become less open, more able to control our feelings and
emotions - which will also become necessary, since others will more easily
be able to access what we're thinking or feeling. We will still fall back
on speech in order to communicate with our newborns, however, since it
will take a few years before they can safely get implants of their own,
but in the future, speech will be what baby talk is today.
Thought-to-thought communication is just one feature of cybernetics that will
become vitally important to us as we face the distinct possibility of being
superseded by highly intelligent
machines. Humans are crazy enough not only to build machines with an overall
intelligence greater than our own, but to defer to them and give them power
that matters. So how will humans cope, later this century, with machines
more intelligent than us? Here, again, I believe cybernetics can help.
Linking people via chip implants directly to those machines seems a natural
progression, a potential way of harnessing machine intelligence by,
creating superhumans. Otherwise, we're doomed to a future in which intelligent
machines rule and humans become second-class citizens. My project explores
a middle ground that gives humans a chance to hang in there a bit longer.
Right now, we're moving toward a world where machines and humans remain
distinct, but instead of just handing everything over to them, I offer
a more gradual coevolution with computers.
Yet once a human brain is connected as a node to a machine - a networked
brain with other human brains similarly connected - what will
it mean to be human? Will we evolve into a new cyborg community?
I believe humans will become cyborgs and no longer be stand-alone entities.
What we think is possible will change in response to what kinds of abilities
the implants afford us. Looking at the world and understanding it in many
dimensions, not just three, will put a completely different context on
how we - whatever "we" are - think.
I base this on my own experience with my first implant, when I actually
became emotionally attached to the computer. It took me only a couple of
days to feel like my implant was one with my body. Every day in the building
where I work, things switched on or opened up for me - it felt as though
the computer and I were working in harmony. As a scientist, I observed
that the feelings I had were neither expected nor completely explainable
- and certainly not quantifiable. It was a bit like being half of a pair
of Siamese twins. The computer and I were not one, but neither were we
separate. We each had our own distinct but complementary abilities. To
be truthful, Irena started to get rather worried - jealous, perhaps - when
I tried to explain these sensations.
With the new implant, I expect this feeling of connectedness to be much
stronger, particularly when emotional signals are brought into the equation.
From a medical point of view, I was pleased when the first implant was
taken out, but I was otherwise quite upset - I felt as though a friend
had just died. With the new implant I might find it impossible to let go,
despite the potential for long-term problems were I to retain it.
These desires - which draw me closer to the implant - could ultimately
influence my own values and what it means to me to be human. Morals and
ethics are an outgrowth of the way in which humans interact with each other.
Cultures may have diverse ethics, but, regardless, individual liberties
and human life are always valued over and above machines. What happens
when humans merge with machines? Maybe the machines will then become more
important to us than another human life. Those who have become cyborgs
will be one step ahead of humans. And just as humans have always valued
themselves above other forms of life, it's likely that cyborgs will look
down on humans who have yet to "evolve."
Surprisingly, nobody has reacted to my
plans by telling me, "That's impossible" - I think because no one really
knows what will happen. When I tell others about my work, more often they
are aghast, not really comprehending what I'm talking about. But no scientists
have told me I shouldn't be playing God or that what I'm doing is unfeasible
or too dangerous. Even so, I am certain that after Alexander Graham Bell
said, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you," the cynics asked, "Why didn't
you just walk to the next room and speak to him?" At the time, it was difficult
to see where it all might lead. Of course, I don't put myself in the same
category as people like Bell or Charles Lindbergh or John F. Kennedy -
pioneers who were convinced we could do things like land men on the moon.
But I've been inspired by these visionaries, these risk takers, each of
whom spent his lifetime obsessively pursuing his goals.
Since childhood I've been captivated by the study of robots and cyborgs.
Now I'm in a position where I can actually become one. Each morning,
I wake up champing at the bit, eager to set alight the 21st century - to
change society in ways that have never been attempted, to change how we
communicate, how we treat ourselves medically, how we convey emotion to
one another, to change what it means to be human, and to buy a little more
time for ourselves in the inevitable evolutionary process that technology
has accelerated. In the meantime, I feel like screaming when
I have to do paperwork or shop or go to sleep - it's stopping me from getting
on with what I really want to do. The next implant cannot come soon enough.
Kevin Warwick (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading in the UK (www.cyber.rdg.ac.uk) .
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