Professor becomes world's first cyborg
March 22, 2002 1:00 AM   Subscribe

Professor becomes world's first cyborg Surgeons have carried out a ground-breaking operation on a cybernetics professor so that his nervous system can be wired up to a computer. It is hoped that the procedure could lead to a medical breakthrough for people paralysed by spinal cord damage, like Superman actor Christopher Reeve. Prof Warwick believes it also opens up the possibility of a sci-fi world of cyborgs, where the human brain can one day be upgraded with implants for extra memory, intelligence or X-ray vision. The medical possibilities with this are amazing, so why does it make me feel so uneasy?
posted by Tarrama (24 comments total)
I think it is interesting from a research point of view, but The Register seems to think much less of his relationship with the press.
posted by viama at 1:10 AM on March 22, 2002

so why does it make me feel so uneasy?

Could be gas...try some Pepto.
posted by HTuttle at 2:25 AM on March 22, 2002

So having a chip that takes readings implanted in one's arm is supposed to qualify that person as a cyborg... What does that make people with pacemakers?

Besides, all they've done is implant it, the big question is what results have they gotten?
posted by epimorph at 2:28 AM on March 22, 2002 [1 favorite]

Don't pee all over the zeitgeist, epimorph.

I've been looking forward to this new implant since Kevin speculated about it in that Wired article two years ago. Be great to see if it pans out like he hopes.
posted by dong_resin at 2:35 AM on March 22, 2002

NTK doesn't like him very much either and to be honest I trust those two bunches of ironic ruffians much more than the Professor of Cybernetics at Reading University.

epimorph: exactly.

El Reg comments on this today noting that after all the 'cyborg' hype:
On a more modest level, Warwick reckons that the experiment could aid understanding of ways of helping paraplegic and other nerve-damaged sufferers. And on this score, he may well be right.
posted by nedrichards at 4:02 AM on March 22, 2002

Despite having implanted chips very similar to this thread, I don't consider myself a cyborg. And this guy aint one either.

With the possibility of paralysis I'd question his doctors ethics, but I hope the research produces useable results.
posted by DBAPaul at 4:17 AM on March 22, 2002

You guys are missing out on the fun, here. Just like typing nonsense into this webpage means I'm existing in parallel cyberspace reality, so is Kevin Warwick a transhuman superbeing because he has what amounts to Genie garage door opener jammed in his arm.
Stop ruining this for me!
It's 2002, and there are still no really good sexbots or flying cars. I need something, damnit.
posted by dong_resin at 4:35 AM on March 22, 2002

Steve Mann is gonna be pissed. He's always claimed to be the world's first cyborg.
posted by crunchland at 4:36 AM on March 22, 2002

Discussed here at least once before. And lookie there -- that time I posted Kevin Warwick Watch.
posted by dhartung at 5:45 AM on March 22, 2002

Im 30 years old and have had a pacemaker for 2 years. Other than a bi-yearly checkup (where a computer alters my heart rate...weird!!!), and being unable to take blows (punches, etc.) to my upper left chest, it hampers me in no way whatsoever.

And again, what makes this guy a cyborg more than me? Then again, why aren't contact lens wearers cyborgs? Glasses? Polyester clothes wearers? Women with breast implants? Artificial hips in my grandpa? Technology isnt just about microchips. We've always been grafting newer and newer technology to ourselves in order to live more comfortable lives.

I'll never understand Luddites. They are afraid of technology, yet still use language, fire, refrigeration, books, TV, etc. All of which are examples of technology.

Hell, walking upright was a bigger advance in technology than computers...and I dont see a group of individuals fearing to walk upright because it makes them uncomfortable with "where we are heading".

My point is, we are sitting on a timeline of technological growth. And while it's important to keep ourselves in check and not to let growth get out of control, to fear that which we dont understand (cloning, RU-486, wetware, etc.) is artificially setting up limits to who we are...limiting ourselves. No thanks.

I'm thankful for my pacemaker otherwise I would have died 2 years ago.

posted by Dantien at 6:40 AM on March 22, 2002

Reminds me of an old headline from The Onion, "Stephen Hawking Builds Robotic Exoskeleton."
posted by topolino at 7:33 AM on March 22, 2002

I'm with Dantien: I always liked to think that my glasses made me a cyborg.

It's one of the central questions of Sci-Fi as a genre, from Blade Runner to A.I. to Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Neuromancer, Total Recall, etc: where exactly does human end and machine begin? When you start replacing biological parts with technology, what happens to the self? Anything? The most graceful answer is still that of Blade Runner, which effectively asks back: "What difference does it make?"

From graduate seminars of yore, I seem to remember Donna Haraway as one of the crucial critics on this topic. I'll be buggered if I remember what she has to say about it though. Maybe I need one of these.
posted by muckster at 7:50 AM on March 22, 2002

I interviewed the man, and the man has problems. Look at his arm in the news item, mygod. And here is his problem (sorry about the length, but I think it nails this guy absolutely).

'It's time to ask the obvious question. If the rise of machine intelligence will spell the eventual overthrow of humankind - then why the hell is he a professor of cybernetics helping to bring this tyranny about?

"It's what turns me on, I love doing it, I'm a professor of cybernetics, 25 hours a day . . . Cybernetics is people and machines, and that's what the world is, so it's great to have a job like that - it's my hobby . . . If they didn't pay me, I'd still want to do it . . ."

But take this scenario: one day, in your lab, you switch on the latest machine intelligence - and it either asks you not to switch it off again, or makes it evidently very difficult to do so. Now, the march is on: the machines, from this point, will not stop rising.

Do you take a hammer to it - set things back a few years, campaign for the "international body for monitoring and controlling" machine intelligence that you recommend? Or do you let it flower, get your Nobel Prize, and become the Oppenheimer of the next century?

"Well, it wouldn't let me get a Nobel Prize unless it wanted me to . . . But that's the sixty-four thousand dollar question, isn't it? I'm looking at the Jekyll and Hyde pub there, over the road - and I think the lad Stevenson hit the nail on the head as far as scientists are concerned. Dr Jekyll didn't just do it once, he knew what was going to happen, so he went and did it again . . . I would go for it, actually. I couldn't destroy my own progeny. it would be like smashing a child, I suppose."

And his father was? "A schoolteacher - a teacher of everything, you know?" Who specialised, says Kevin, "in what you might call retarded children, or children that were struggling". I clam up, deploying an interviewer's strategic silence, hoping against hope. Then, Kevin delivers.

"Actually, what my father did has raised an interest for me recently, particularly looking at human intelligence. The academic people will think of intelligence as meaning themselves, a norm of perfect IQ. Whereas in my experience, and my father's, everybody is a little bit strange. Some people with mental disabilities, if I can call them that, can learn an awful lot . . . I've particularly looked at autism - and even since the book, looking at autistic people, you get a completely different perspective on what intelligence is in humans."

Did he come into contact with the kids his dad was teaching? "They would come on Saturdays and Sundays sometimes, he would give them special tuition and things like that. I used to meet them directly - they were older, I was younger, so I could see what mental age was all about, and the particular hang-ups or problems that they had . . ."

We talked about, and concurred with, the ideas of ethical philosopher Peter Singer - who has made the point about how elastic the concept of human rights can be, if they are based on the notion of a fully self-conscious and intending person. Singer says that if a mentally disabled person can be granted legal responsibility, even if they are not capable of understanding the concept, then why can't an ape have rights? Or - to the point - why not an early machine intelligence? "Absolutely, it goes back to Berkeley - you can only perceive the world according to the senses you have. Which doesn't make it any less real of a world to you . . ."

So the prophet of machine supremacy also regards his robots as, well, differently abled. Would the early machine-souls, whirring around on rubber-wheels, demand ramps, elevators, special seats at venues? I'm glad we're out of the future-war scenarios: this is a vision of the "post-human" which I can cope with. It might even, conceivably, expand our sympathies. What if the machines do become intelligent - but stay cripples? Might we extend pity, rather than fear?

Emotions and cybernetics: discuss. But I can't get Professor Warwick off the topic of his father. "My dad developed agoraphobia, in a very bad way . . . I was about eight or nine, I don't remember exactly . . . But in the end he couldn't go and do his job - he was literally stuck in the house, and in the end they had to give him an operation. Christ knows what they did, but it worked . . ."

What was it? "A brain operation. They went in the top," - hands waving over the top of his skull - "and snipped a few things . . . When he came out of the operation, he could certainly walk around - but he had also gained a very, very aggressive temperament. Nowadays, I don't think they would allow the operation to be done."

I can't bring myself to ask whether his father had a lobotomy. But he rallies in the silence, the bright-bulb scientist. "In those days, they could have such experiments - and, of course, it was wonderful that they did . . ."

So your father was a completely different person when he came back. "Oh completely. He was very placid before. But now he had gained this - not a violent, but a quick-fire temper. He would growl at you, very sharply, where he'd say nothing before." That must have been an incredible shift for you, as a kid. "Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah."

He rallies once more. "But looking back on it, just thinking of how the human brain operates, and how small changes in the wiring changes everything completely . . . I find that a lot of the arguments that defend the completeness of the human brain, as opposed to the limited nature of machine consciousness, they really do fall apart . . ."

So you can't tell Professor Cyborg about the brain as a meat-machine: he knows about wrong routings, or cut wires, in the network of a mind. And what such damage can change. Which is everything, complete.

Kevin Warwick is very insistent now: the confident cyberneticist. "There's no magic oofle-dust in there that gives us our spark of self - we're just a set of cells that are interconnected . . . We have sensors on the outside - and inside, our brain has a limited size . . . Even now it's relatively slow in comparison with silicon - that's the truth of the matter. And to say that when we can recreate this enormous complexity, with many more connections - to say that it's not going to be able to do what this does" - another vigorous tap of the head - "to me is utterly ridiculous!"

He understands they're working on connecting tendons to silicon chips in Aberdeen. Once they're cracked it, he wants to be first to try it out: "I quite like this feeling now - maybe it is a bit sado-masochistic, I don't know . . ." The bruise on his arm seems to have shifted its colours around: I have to say, it's the most alive thing about him. An injury for the future, self- inflicted. A stigmata for machines. And men.'
posted by theplayethic at 8:00 AM on March 22, 2002

The only thing that worries me about technology integrated in the body comes from something someone once said about having a grain of dust under a contact lens -- it's one of the most annoying and painful things we can come across in a normal day. How would it feel if your leg GPF'd and needed a reboot?

Other than that, I've been wanting a plug in the back of my head since I read Neuromancer oh so many years ago.
posted by fnirt at 8:40 AM on March 22, 2002

I consider everyone I communicate with only on the web a cyborg presence in my life, with advanced communication and expression technology. dong_resin, you are an infobot, and a humorbot.
posted by liam at 9:12 AM on March 22, 2002

what about Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer? he has a chip in his head to prevent him from hurting humans but he's not technically a human since he's undead. could he be called a cyborg?
posted by mcsweetie at 9:37 AM on March 22, 2002

liam, cool!

humorbot protocol 23215-352 [response #23]
-rectum? It nearly killed `im!
-rectum? It nearly killed `im!
-rectum? It nearly killed `im! kil kilk kill kill kill kill

crap.... Run!
posted by dong_resin at 9:52 AM on March 22, 2002

theplayethic: Nice interview. But despite your obvious disagreement with the guy, and distrust of his motivations, I like him and agree with him. Which is a tribute to how well you balanced your own opinion with your reporting, imho.

mcsweetie: Spike is dead, but he's still an organism (i.e. he's made of organic matter, albeit dead), so I think it's accurate to call him a cyborg, if the guy in the link is a cyborg. Then again, I tend to think of cyborgs as creatures enhanced by the additions, and his chip is limiting...unless you look at it from an ethical standpoint, I guess. At any rate, I like Spike's chip, but it is a Clockwork Orange ripoff.
posted by bingo at 9:55 AM on March 22, 2002

Note to self. Humorbot has acquired existential self-awareness. And Woody Allen repetition glitch. Time to put him in the shop for version 2.0 upgrade. Will make do with Marx Bros. till implant complete.
posted by liam at 10:13 AM on March 22, 2002

Good call on Clockwork Orange, bingo, since it's a movie that wonders whether the distinction between human and cyborg is pointless: are humans just wet machines, juicy mechanisms, reprogrammable clockworks orange, to begin with?

If cyborgs are "creatures enhanced by additions," does a dog with a flea collar qualify?
posted by muckster at 10:34 AM on March 22, 2002

so why does it make me feel so uneasy?

Because it's only a matter of time before his arm starts recieving "penis enlargement" spam.
posted by jonmc at 11:15 AM on March 22, 2002

for some reason all i can think of is sealab 2021...
Sparks We were talking about puttin' a human brain in a robot.

Marco Robot body?! No way. That's against the Natuaral Order!

Sparks Well, you'd have the strength of five men --

Murphy NOT five men! Five gorillas. But, since you're that strong, if you tried to pet a kitten, you'd crush it.

Marco Oh, no! Poor kitty!
posted by boogah at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2002

I think he did this so he could interface with his X-box. I'm not telling where they installed the 'Dual Shock'. Its only a matter of time before he installs a zany zapper in a monicle and changes his name legally to 'Loqutis of Reading'
posted by Perigee at 11:36 AM on March 22, 2002

I just have to add some noise so I can give jonmc props for the best laugh I've had all week.
posted by annathea at 1:40 PM on March 22, 2002

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