Interview with the Cyborg

Kevin Warwick is Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading. [Web page.] He is best known for the Project Cyborg experiments in which he has had electronic devices implanted into his body, enabling him to communicate with computer equipment using neural signals. He has also appeared widely in the media speaking on topics as diverse as Artificial Intelligence, robots, and life on other planets, and he gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 2000. He has not been afraid to court controversy as well as accolade through his work. Professor's Warwick's recent books include I, Cyborg (2002) and QI: The Quest for Intelligence (2000). The Future Fire spoke to him. [ Image courtesy Kevin Warwick ]

Future Fire: How did you first become involved in Cybernetics? What was your motivation in undertaking 'cyborg' research?

Kevin Warwick: As a teenager I was always excited by the possibility. In fact I read a book by Michael Crichton, The Terminal Man, about a guy who had electrodes pushed into his brain. I thought about the actual possibilities. Now to be in a position to actually carry out research where we are not sure at all what is around the corner is tremendous.

FF: Can you explain briefly the difference between 'hard' and 'soft' AI? Does either exist yet?

KW: Long answer needed: roughly though—hard AI is the view that a computer will be able to fully simulate the operation of the human brain; soft AI is the view that a complete simulation is not possible, but that some aspects can be copied. Soft AI exists, but hard AI is more of a futuristic viewpoint. I have to say though that my own view is somewhat different. I am more interested in what sort of intelligence a machine can exhibit in its own right—I guess that is neither a hard or soft viewpoint.

FF: Let's rephrase the question, then: do you think the Turing-test kind of 'hard' AI is a realistic goal, or even a useful goal? What would you use the term 'computer intelligence' to denote, if we avoid speaking simply in terms of imitating the human mind, or anthropomorphising computers?

KW: Computer/machine intelligence is what I am really interested in, so for me the Turing test is merely an interesting aside, a parlour game, but not particularly important in the grand scheme of things. Machine intelligence is then all about how machines can be intelligent, which depends what the machine is doing, how it perceives the world etc. (See my book QI for more on this.)

FF: Project Cyborg: tell me briefly why it is so important? What major breakthroughs have been achieved by this project.

KW: On the one hand it can potentially help people who are paralysed—for example I was able to control a wheelchair directly from neural signals. On the other hand it opens up the possibility of upgrading all humans—extra sensory input (ultrasonic) worked successfully—so it will be good to look at what other senses we can have. As part of the experiment I was able to communicate with my wife telegraphically nervous system to nervous system—in the future with brain implants this will be thought communication.

FF: What other essential research is or should be being undertaken in the field of Cybernetics?

KW: The exciting stuff as far as I am concerned will turn up from either Brown University, from John Donaghue or Emory from Philip Kennedy: both have been researching into the use of implants in humans, in different ways. Could be some good stuff from my own lab of course—eg. the new paper just out in the IEE Proceedings - Communications. This describes the communication with my wife and communication across the internet between New York and Reading (UK).

FF: Tell me more about this thought-communication: what sorts of information were you able to transmit to your wife? Were either of these experiments controlled in any way?

KW: We transmitted motor neural signals between nervous systems in a telegraphic form of communication. The experiment was carried out in front of a selected group of scientists and media folk. [ Image courtesy Kevin Warwick ]

FF: What other sorts of human modifications could this sort of technology make possible? You've talked about wheelchair control for the paralysed; could we also see prosthetic limbs that can be controlled via neural links rather than crude muscular movements as today? Would this be preferable to the recent advances in limb transplantation, which involve immunosuppressant drugs to be taken for life?

KW: Yes; but also the limb does not have to be connected to the body to be controlled by neural/brain signals.

FF: If the brain can communicate with a computer, can we see telepathic connection to networks, one day? (I'm thinking of the Larry Page "Google implant" story, but also more serious applications.) What would be the advantages and disadvantages of this technology? What applications can you think of for thought communicaton?

KW: See the following paper: K. Warwick, M. Gasson, et al., ‘Thought Communication and control: a first step using radiotelegraphy’, IEEE Proc.-Commun. vol. 151, 2004, 185-188 [online—subscription required]. From the abstract: "A signalling procedure is described involving a connection, via the Internet, between the nervous system of an able-bodied individual and a robotic prosthesis, and between the nervous systems of two able-bodied human subjects. Neural implant technology is used to directly interface each nervous system with a computer. Neural motor unit and sensory receptor recordings are processed real-time and used as the communication basis. This is seen as a first step towards thought communication, in which the neural implants would be positioned in the central nervous systems of two individuals."

Yes: certainly thought communication is a possibility. We have to consider memory uploads/downloads as well. As for an application of thought communication—I feel this is something we will see generally available in the future. A new way of communicating (bit like when the telephone was introduced). Memory downloads of course change the face of education. Who needs lectures any more?

FF: In your web-site you talk about the Cyborg as an "evolution" from current levels of humanity. Evolutionists recognise that there is nothing intrinsically 'good' or even desirable in natural selection (nor 'bad' or undesirable, of course). Just because something is possible, does that mean we should automatically do it?

KW: Not at all. I feel we would have to want to do something like this in big numbers. I feel the advantages are enormous, so when the technology is more readily available then many will go for it. So it is upgrading because we want to.

FF: Is this not a rather amoral stance? (Compare for example the extreme case of performance-enhancing drugs in sports: left to their own devices almost all athletes would end up using these, but sports bodies rightly forbid this.) What I'm getting at is, don't the advantages need to be weighed against possible disadvantages to decide if something is desirable?

KW: As for the morals of upgrading or not, I think these need to be discussed in reality. We need to discover if anyone is against it, or not. I have my opinion, but the opinions of (all) others need to be voiced. There are commercial gains to be made (by someone). As you say there could be problems for those who do not wish to be upgraded. But should they be able to stop others going ahead with it? We need to open up the discussion.

FF: Can you imagine a situation where public opinion (or a change of mind on your part) suggests that Cyborg research is dangerous—would you cease researching this area in that case?

KW: If there was strong ethical opinion against then of course I would cease. However I would try to persuade gently with my own opinion as I feel we would be leaving many paraplegics in a state that they do not need to be, ie by making such a decision we would be ignoring the possibilities of helping a lot of people. That, to me, is not a particularly good ethical situation—we have the technology to help some disabled people but we do not use it. I think I would have difficulties associating with such a society.

FF: How do the technologies of AI and the Cyborg inter-relate? If the one is making computers more like humans (in a limited sense), and the other is making people more like machines, will they meet somewhere in the middle? Or are they somehow contradictory processes that may come into conflict?

KW: There is a range of research going on. AI is really one aspect/area of cybernetics. Some AI is aimed at making robots/computers think like humans (albeit in a limited way as you suggest), other (my own) is more aimed at getting robots/computers to think for themselves, in their own (machine) way. My own research is then involved with combining the best of both worlds (human and machine) to form an upgraded amalgam. Improving people by linking them directly with machine technology. Hopefully they will blend together (first indications are that this will be the case). One big reason for going this way is the potential human v. intelligent machine conflict if we do not go this route.

In merging the two systems together, the human brain is very good at cherry picking. If an extra sense or ability is not useful (a bit of a chore) then the human brain will (I believe) tend to ignore that possibility, whereas if it is deemed to be beneficial/useful then it will be welcomed both mentally and physically. The human brain is a mercenary (in a general sense) organ.

FF: Many thanks for your time, Professor Warwick, and for sharing some of your fascinating vision of the future.

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