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'In the future, humans will become cyborgs'

Jan 20, 2004
Piali Banerjee
Times of India

How does it feel to shake hands with an ex-cyborg, a man who has gone through the experience of being part-human part-robot in the past?

Well, the experience is tempered down somewhat when you hear Kevin Warwick joking about his own experiments with artificial intelligence at the University of Reading, UK.

"I've been a cyborg for three months," he says, rolling his eyes and adding a la Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Terminator', "And I'll be back."

The story so far goes that Kevin Warwick, who is currently visiting Mumbai, shocked the scientific world so much when he inserted a silicon chip in his forearm and connected himself to a computer in 1998, that when he actually connected his nervous system to a robot via the Internet to turn himself into a cyborg four years later, the world simply sat back to watch his experiments.

Was the experiment successful? "Well, it definitely let me realise a few of my dreams of communicating directly without speaking," he replies.

"My nervous system was connected, from where I was in New York , to a robot in UK through the Internet, and I could actually move the robot's hand by moving my hand. The experience worked vice versa too. In the sense, that when the robot gripped any object, I could sense the pressure thousands of miles away."

Mr Warwick roped in his wife, Irena, to test his theory that communication between two people need not be through the old-fashioned way of speech.

"She had electrodes put into her hand, so that every time I moved, the signal from my nervous system reached hers directly," he explains. "It was exciting to feel my nerves go 'ting ting' each time she moved, miles and miles away from me."

Mr Warwick's current project involves developing a robot which has five sensesóbesides having vision and hearing, it has a radar noise, an infra-red sensitive lip and an ultrasonic sensitive forehead.

"Most intelligent robots now work with two senses, I want to see whether this one can react better to the outside world, using five senses," he says.

As far as human experimentation goes, a patient of multiple sclerosis has volunteered to have his brain connected to a computer, which will help him to do simple motor functions around the house and drive a car.

"I will be experimenting personally with a brain transplant after 10 years," he adds. "Technically I know it's possible to communicate what we're thinking directly into the brain of another person. This implant may help me prove it."

As for the dangers of self-experimentation, Mr Warwick argues that he knows the risks, but he isn't the first since scientists have done this through history.

"Scientists have swallowed cholera-causing bacteria, inserted catheters in their hearts, etc," he says. "I know I could have lost the use of my hand if anything had gone wrong with my nervous system implant. But I chose to take the risk. And no, right now there's no worldwide ethical body to stop me from doing so."

What is the purpose behind his dogged work on cybernetics, which began 15 years ago when he made his first simple robot? "Well, let's accept it, in another 30 years, we are going to have machines and computers that will be more intelligent than human beings," he replies.

"In an ideal world, it would be nice to say that we should be careful about how much intelligence we put in robots. But in the real world, there will always be people who will put in superior intelligence in robots, especially military robots. In such a scenario, it makes sense to upgrade the human brain too, in order to keep up. I believe that in the future humans will becomes cyborgs and no longer be stand-alone entities."

© Copyright 2004, Times of India