Kevin Warwick: The ITWales Interview

by Sali Earls

Professor Kevin WarwickKevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at Reading University, is a well known and celebrated UK scientist. His pioneering research into neural implants has led to him receiving his own implant which linked his nervous system to the internet, in effect making him a human cyborg.

Warwick delivered a public lecture at the recent Christmas event of the South Wales branch of the British Computer Society, organised by ITWales and held at the National Waterfront Museum. In his presentation to an audience of more than 200, Warwick discussed his own implants and the ethical issues surrounding the possible future of “upgraded humans”.

Following the lecture, Professor Warwick spoke to Sali Earls about his work, his media notoriety and his plans for the future.

The idea of cybernetics sounds a bit like science fiction to many. How would you define your subject?

Cybernetics is historically defined as controls and communications in humans and machines, and for me in the subject that really involves humans and technology interacting in many ways. Particularly in biomedical areas – the use of technology for medicine, and helping people in one way or another – but also looking at all sorts of technological entities from a systems point of view, and how it operates when a human is in the loop. So, this includes things like robotics and artificial intelligence – one of my main interests.

It does overlap with science fiction. I think science fiction in this area particularly is looking to the future, to the world of intelligent machines, and questioning how that compares with human intelligence; and the world of cyborgs – cybernetic organisms – part human, part machine which is tremendously exciting and something I’m keen to get involved with more and more.

In the lecture you talked about the implant you had in 2002 for three months. Why did you feel it necessary to undergo such a procedure yourself?

It’s one of those things, if you’re trying something like this for the first time, you need to experience it yourself. We were sending signals down onto the nervous system and up into the brain, and experiencing it for yourself has perhaps two main features.

One is that it is of course very dangerous – I don’t perhaps make anything of that – and to be honest, having one of the researchers or somebody else that didn’t need to carry out the experiment involved, and something went wrong – which it could easily do – I don’t know how I could live with myself. If it goes wrong and it’s me involved, then OK. I made the choice, I wanted to do the research, and if something went wrong, so be it.

That’s one aspect, but also looking at extra sensory input for example, or communicating in a new way, actually experiencing it for myself and understanding what it feels like is tremendously exciting, and I actually get to benefit from it.

You talk about the danger aspect of such an experiment. I’m sure you know that a lot of people would consider you to be a little bit nuts, but perhaps many are not aware of the inherent danger that goes with a lot of groundbreaking research.

Yes. This is a little bit “Jekyll and Hyde”. From a scientific point of view you don’t know how it’s going to work out. If Dr Jekyll had succeeded, it would have been a completely different story.

I’ve been lucky so far with the experiments we have done, I’ve come out of them OK, but the next one may not be so lucky. You have to take that risk, and some people may ridicule what you’re doing – if you get it wrong they think you’re an idiot, and if you get it right they seem to disregard it. But so be it. I’m not really bothered about that, I’m really interested in doing the work – that’s what gets me excited.

Kevin Warwick and his wife Irina display their implantsWhen you had the implant, your wife also underwent a similar procedure temporarily and you and she communicated nervous system to nervous system. Can you explain what happened and how it felt?

I guess one of the things that I’d always been excited by all my life were the first experiments that were conducted by Sam Morse with the telegraph system, and then with Alexander Graham Bell actually coming up with the telephone system, and making that step forward. So to be in the position later on to do something, not only similar, but in some regards you could consider it as surpassing that was a fantastic opportunity.

We had my implant which linked my nervous system electrically directly with the computer and onto the internet, and my wife Irina, who also had electrodes pushed into her nervous system to link her nervous system to the computer and the internet, and we essentially linked our nervous systems together directly, electrically. We had an electrical circuit which linked us directly, so that when she moved her hand, the neural signals from her brain went from her nervous system and appeared on my nervous system, and therefore up to my brain.

So her brain signals travelled electrically to stimulate my nervous system and brain, and when she moved her hand three times, I felt in my brain three pulses, and my brain recognised that my wife was communicating with me. It was the world’s first purely electronic communication from brain to brain, and therefore the basis for thought communication.

Do you think that over time, humans will develop a way of interpreting these communications appropriately? From what you’ve said, it seems as if you can experience things via neural implants that you can’t entirely understand or verbalise.

In the first instance I think it will be quite trivial, like a telegraphic communication, and maybe even repeating a telephonic, almost a speech type of communication, but without actually talking, just going from brain to brain. That shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve.

It’s then the big question of how much further we can go, because if we’re transmitting signals brain to brain in a parallel way, it open up the possibility of pictorial, graphical, colourful communication from brain to brain. That’s really going to be exciting as people learn how to recognise those signals in a whole new way.

It’s very difficult to know exactly where it’s going to go, this is really just opening up a whole new world of possibilities of communicating in a much richer way. Just as 130 years ago, Alexander Graham Bell opened up a world with the first telephone call, I doubt he could have imagined that it would have led to television, the internet, and communicating via videophones. If we look 100 years into the future, it would be difficult to imagine what this all might lead to.

One possible future that you touched on in the BCS lecture, is the upgrading of humans to the point that we end up with cyborgs being the norm, and remaining humans as some sort of subspecies. Do you really think this is likely, and what sort of timescale do you think we’re looking at?

I think it’s a distinct possibility. This is an exciting technology that will stretch humankind. I don’t think it will make the poor poorer, but it certainly will give those that can afford it intellectual abilities way beyond what they have. I also think that it may not only stretch society, but it may break it into two groups. It could happen very quickly.

We’re looking at the first thought communication experiments within a decade, so within ten years they will have been conducted, if not by me they will have been done by others – it is going to happen. Within twenty years I would think that this could start to become a commercial reality, so you can go and have a little thing injected into your head, and communicate with other people just by thinking. That will be tremendously powerful, but those that don’t have it really will start to be left behind. I would have thought that this two tier society could be with us certainly by 2050. In a way, I don’t really see a problem with it – if people want to upgrade, why not? Let’s have more senses and a new way of communicating. If people don’t want to do it, then it’s their choice.

If this happens, I guess a lot of it will come down to the commercialisation of these technologies, and how responsibly they are sold and used.

I think it does present enormous commercial opportunity, and of course you have ethical questions – ‘should or shouldn’t you do this?’. The commercial opportunities have ethical questions in themselves, as they bring in profit not only for the companies involved but also within countries. So if it’s a UK company that launches a thought communication device that takes off, they will make enormous sums of money, which will be good for the country, which is what we hope would happen. Ethical questions change from whether this is a good thing or not to the fact that it will affect humans in a very big way.

Staying with ethical concerns, in the lecture you demonstrated very powerfully that people are currently benefiting from implants in a therapeutic sense. Could you explain the research in this area, and how therapeutic implants evolve over time?

At the moment there is an implant that can be pushed right into the middle of the brain – in the subthalamic nucleus is one potential area – and it provides a stimulation that counteracts the tremor effects of Parkinson’s Disease to the extent that many patients can lead a normal life, and so they leave the implant switched on all the time. The number of people benefiting from that is now increasing – surgeon’s are getting very good and deciding which people can benefit from it, the exact frequency of stimulation, and the positioning of it. There is now research into the long term effects of this therapy.

There is also research into neural implants and epilepsy, which is looking extremely positive, and there are all sorts of possibilities for applications of this sort of implant. It could help people with other types of dystonia or multiple sclerosis – there is a whole range of diseases and problems that could be tackled in one way or another.

When you look at implants it opens up the area of paralysis, whether through an illness or as a result of an accident, and they have lesions in their nervous system. I think we’re going to see in the very near future, the possibility of bridging over the lesions and at least restoring some of the original function, and at the same time allowing the person who was paralysed to control their environment to a certain extent – to switch on lights or drive their car, just by thinking. We’re going to see those types of technology coming into play.

Kevin Warwick controlling a robotic arm over the internet via his neural implantThe nature of your research has led you to have quite a high profile in the media, and your work is often discussed on sites like The Register, but they don’t seem to take you particularly seriously. How do you feel about this, and what’s the knock on effect on your work?

The work does seem to have a high profile, which I guess is understandable. I think that anybody commenting on a regular basis on what I do must have an interest in it. At least every month there is a comment about me on The Register, and I think that if they didn’t think there was any value whatsoever in what I do, there wouldn’t be any comments at all.

It’s understandable – I am doing some radical experiments, and some people may think they are a little bit strange, so it’s good that sites like The Register question what I’m doing and whether it’s right. It’s another way of looking at it, that I think is probably a very good thing, and I applaud it. I love it that we live in a society where there are opportunities for people to question in this kind of way. At the same time, it does bring attention to the work that I’m doing – people may look at The Register, and find out more about my work as a result, then perhaps come along to a presentation that I’m giving, or have a look at one of my papers and find out that there’s a bit more to it than The Register was probably implying.

I’m thankful to The Register for pointing out the research I am doing. Perhaps most people that look at the site have considerable technological nous as it were, and so for them to find out more about what I’m doing is not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned.

What’s next for Kevin Warwick?

I’m involved in a whole range of projects at the moment. One of them that is now ongoing is culturing neural networks – that is actually growing artificial brains from biological tissue – and we’re working on that to control a little robot. So rather than have a robot controlled by a computer brain, the robot will be controlled by a biological brain. That to me is tremendously exciting.

In the implant world, we’re working with surgeons on an improved implant for Parkinson’s Disease that can predict the tremors before they occur, and then counteract them before they actually happen, so it’s not stimulating all the time and hence not using up power constantly, it’s just monitoring and then stimulates when appropriate, so it has to be able to predict what the human brain is doing.

For my own implant, I see that as being about seven or eight years away. I do believe firmly that we can carry out a first experiment in thought communication involving brain to brain communication. It will require a brain implant, and I am certainly on for it, and I’m really excited and looking forward to it. I really want to experience signals from somebody else’s brain appearing in my brain – I want to get there first.

Find out more about Kevin Warwick and his work at www.kevinwarwick.com.