The Cyborg Experiments

Kevin Warwick1, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, spoke recently at Virtual Futures 2.0’11 about his work in the field of robotics, artificial intelligence and biomedical engineering. In his talk, he offered a real insight into the pioneering work being done and the potential for huge advancements in the future.

In the past twenty years Professor Kevin Warwick of the University of Reading has gone one step further than surmising. His pioneering research into robots with biological brains and enhancing human physiological functioning with electronic devices has brought the science fiction future into the present.

RFID identity

In the mid-1990s Prof Warwick used RFID technology (radio frequency identification) to identify him to the computers in his workplace. His GP inserted a microchip the length of a two pence piece into Prof Warwick’s arm. The technology is now widely used to tag and track cats and dogs at a smaller range.

Rat brain robot

Prof Warwick’s research created the ‘rat brain robot’ with a biological brain. He cultured brain cells directly on to a recording surface and then re-embodied the ‘brain’ within a robotic body. The robot made decisions based on information coming in.

A baby robot at two hours old clearly hadn’t yet learned what its function is. It was supposed to be able to detect a wall and change direction to avoid hitting it, but at such a young age it made lots of mistakes.

Two to three months on the robot had learned from its mistakes. Film of a two month-old robot showed that it had perfected the art of not bumping into the wall. Under the microscope scientists could see how the neural connections developed. The rat brain robot has a purely biological brain, with no computer involved. At the moment, says Prof Warwick, the best neuron-brain robots we can build have, with tens of thousands of brain cells, the intelligence of a bee or a wasp. This is still nowhere near the 100 billion neurons present in a human brain, although researchers are now using human neurons in robots.

Feeling nervous?

Prof Warwick is no stranger to using himself as a guinea pig for his research. One experiment, which previously had only been tested on chickens, involved him undergoing a two hour operation by a neurosurgeon to implant a ‘brain gate’ system in him, linking his nervous system with a computer. The implant in his arm had wires running to a connector. A computer monitored the signals between his brain and arm. Prof Warwick’s brain learned to recognise the system of pulses emitted during the three months of the experiment. He was able to turn on lights and control a wheelchair via the implant.

His wife also had a connector implanted. Every time she moved Prof Warwick’s brain received a signal. It was the first time people had electronically communicated by thought alone.

Ameliorating Parkinson’s disease

One aspect of Prof Warwick’s research is how to change the brain from a therapeutic point of view. Patients with Parkinson’s disease who haven’t shown improvements on medication may already be helped by having a surgical implant in the brain to stop tremors, enabling them to walk again. Prof Warwick is working with surgeons at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford on a system to predict when a tremor will happen before it starts, so stimulation can be applied only when needed.

Sensory substitution

Prof Warwick’s current experiment involves sensory substitution. Humans have five senses, but, according to Prof Warwick, ‘humans 1.0’ miss out on lots of sensory experiences. With full ethical approval from the relevant authorities three students have had magnets implanted in their fingers. One student is involved in researching involving a baseball cap with ultrasonic sensors placed on the head. The sensors on the cap feed down a wire to the student’s finger. The magnets then vibrate, enabling the student to sense how far away objects are.

A second student applies the magnet technology to sense remotely how hot an object is, whilst a third uses the sensors to stimulate his tongue. This is part of research regarding communicating via the tongue.

will we all eventually have chips in our brains and become half men, half machine?

The future

In the future, Prof Warwick asks, will we all eventually have chips in our brains and become half men, half machine? Whilst some of his research has focused on restoring functions that people taken away by illness and disability, other projects give powers humans have never had. “As soon as we can put brain signals on wires”, he states, “we can give people abilities they don’t have rather than restoring what they’ve lost.”

It is much more acceptable within society to look at future possibilities than it was ten to 15 years ago. Prof Warwick’s research concentrates on the technology, whilst the ethical and social issues of its application are widely debated within both the science community and regular media. What will happen to people who don’t have implants? Will we get rid of our bodies and its problems such as obesity and cancer that hold us back and have our biological brain within a large robot? Will we all eventually have microchips in our brains and become half men, half machine? Can the marriage of biology and technology helps us all live longer and healthier lives? These are all questions that we will have to answer.

  1. Kevin Warwick is Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading. He researches artificial intelligence, control, robotics and biomedical engineering.

    The Institute of Physics selected Kevin as one of seven eminent scientists to illustrate the ethical impact their scientific work can have: the others were Galileo, Einstein, Curie, Nobel, Oppenheimer and Rotblat.

    Professor Warwick is a Chartered Engineer (CEng.) and a Fellow of The Institution of Engineering & Technology (FIET). He is the youngest person ever to become a Fellow of the City & Guilds of London Institute (FCGI).


Reproduced with the permission of the Knowledge Centre, University of Warwick

Photography by Andy Miah

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