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Man into machine: work on melding the human nervous system with computers continues unabated.


Can a former telecoms engineer called Kevin from Coventry really be the world s first cyborg? Part man, part machine, Kevin Warwick doesn't look like your typical cyborg, as in the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead, Reading University's Professor of Cybernetics looks more like a lecturer with a silly hat on.

On his way to a lecture at Aston University in Birmingham, he is pleasant and ordinary--too ordinary to fit the reports of self-experimentation and the exotic prophecies published in the media. After all, this is the man who controversially predicts humans will one day become cyborgs. The man who declared 10 years ago that he was on a mission to become the world's first man-machine and since then, as part of Project Cyborg, has co-joined his nervous system with his wife's, moved mechanical hands by the power of thought, and interfaced his brain with the internet to operate a wheelchair thousands of miles away.

Project Cyborg had successes, but also prompted criticism for being gimmicky and overtly media-friendly. Warwick is frank about the goals of his research, which include the development of telepathic communication and the computerised enhancement of the human mind. He is also candid about his relationship with the media. "Various people say I did Project Cyborg just for the publicity," says Warwick "Well there was an element of publicity--we need students and research money after all. But it wasn't just for the publicity."

He is enthusiastic about his current projects, which include the development of intelligent neural implants for Parkinson's disease sufferers. The current generation of neural implants constantly supplies an electrical signal to the brain to counteract the tremors which occur with Parkinson's.

The results are stunning but the treatment is hampered by the batteries in the implants running out relatively quickly. Warwick hopes to solve this by monitoring activity in the brain, and supplying a pulse only when a tremor occurs. Such an "electronic drug" has possible applications in Tourette's syndrome, epilepsy and possibly depression. "It's tremendously exciting," he says. "The first human tests should be happening within the next few years."

That is not to say he has abandoned his aim of human enhancement. Another live project involves the cultivation of biological neural circuitry to replace microprocessors in mini robotic cars. The success of this has so far been fairly limited. "They are driving the robots, but not very well. We have to get the robots to learn their behaviour," says Warwick. The research team is also looking at the use of cancer cells to spawn and grow neural tissue that lasts longer than the rat tissue used.

The focus, he says, is on creating an interface between the human nervous system and computers. Open that Pandora's Box, and Warwick earnestly believes we can all possess superhuman abilities. The next step will be another bout of self-experimentation--building and implanting a neural interface into his brain. "I believe we can bring about communication directly from brain to brain. I want to experience that," he says. To the naysayers, he remains agreeable. "It's appropriate that we stir things up. Engineering can be seen as not the most exciting field, whereas it actually is. To get regular guys reading about what engineers are doing, getting an opinion, it's great for engineering.

"This is a pioneering time. You could call it biomedical, but really it's biosystems. It includes all disciplines--mechanical, electrical, chemical, biological. It's about understanding how humans integrate as a system." Professor Warwick's marvellous cybernetic carnival is in town. It may skim over some of the details, but the lecture theatre is packed out and that can't be a bad thing.


Project Cyborg developed in two stages. In 1998 Warwick was implanted with a simple transmitter, which was used to automatically open doors and operate lights in his laboratory. These radio frequency identification (RFID) implants are beginning to be used in nightclubs in Spain and Holland and by Central American governments, but their use is not widespread.

In 2002 an electrode array was surgically implanted into the median nerve fibres of his left arm. The "neural interface" enabled Warwick to move a mechanical hand and to operate an electric wheelchair remotely via the internet. In the latter stages of the experiment the interface was also linked with a similar implant which was fitted to his wife to enable sensory communication.

"We achieved a very basic form of telegraphic communication. When she moved her hand, my brain received a pulse," explains Warwick. "It felt like my wife communicating with me, just like how you feel when you see something. Your brain just makes the best sense it can. Ultimately this will lead to thought communication. It's tremendously exciting."
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Title Annotation:INNOVATION
Author:Sampson, Ben
Publication:Professional Engineering Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 16, 2008
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