LIFT08: Kevin Warwick, the "Cyborg" [en]

steph-note: live blogged notes, may be incomplete, etc. Kevin is exploring where the machine starts and the human stops.

Two things:

  • chips in humans
  • rat brains in robots

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Working with Parkinson’s disease — deep brain scans to try to detect the illness before the tremors begin.

Research partly to help people, partly for enhancement. Eg. man who lost his arm to cancer, and has a robotic hand, but must use his exiting hand to control the robot arm. A bit silly! Would be better if he could control it directly — that would require an interface between the arm and the brain/neural system.

Increase sensory range.

Kevin has a chip with 100 electrodes implanted (fired!) in the nervous system of his left arm. 4mm in diameter.

steph-note: wondering if that hurt?

For three months had his nervous system partly out of his body. (Had to be careful to not short-circuit it when taking a shower). Part of this was to experiment stuff to help people with disabilities.

steph-note: not sure I quite understood what the thing sticking out of his arm was — something to link him to the computer — and also if the chip was removed after three months or not.

When Kevin was connected to the internet, if you had known the IP address of his nervous system… But what they did is not tell anybody what they were doing until they had done it. Careful not to get your nervous system spammed or hacked!

Highlights from the experiment. Output from the sensors fed to his nervous system (fancy thing on his wrist).

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When an object came closer, his brain received and increased frequency of ultrasounds (?). So basically with a blindfold on, Kevin was able to move around and detect objects pretty accurately. Not what they were, but where they were.

“It felt like something was coming close to me.” Extended the sensory range. Like “what does it feel like to see something”?

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steph-note: showing a short video clip. It makes Kevin sound like Terminator! Will add link if somebody gives it to me.

Experiment with his wife: when his wife moved her hand, he felt it. He could actually feel her movements.

steph-note: Daleks in the video!!! I find it hilarious — the angle this video takes.

Jewellery his wife wears, and the colour changes with his excitement: blue, calm, flashing red: excited. “What is he doing? and with who!?”

Through the internet, made a robot hand mimic what his hand did, with feedback. Objective: hold an object. Good news for people who have been amputated. But also, stretching Kevin’s body across the Atlantic.

His wife had wires pushed into her nervous system from the outside. Very painful! But no anesthetic, because the doctor said he needed to see if he made good contact. It hurt!!

Linked their nervous systems. When she moved her hand, his brain received pulses. Worked very well. Vice-versa: “like lightening running through her hand” when Kevin moved his.

Kevin’s research is now moving from nervous system to the brain directly. Brain to brain communication! Telepathy. Ideas, codes, concepts, images. Upgrade these humans. Communicate in a respectable way!


The implant was taken out because the wires coming out were starting to break, it was an experiment — a lot of practicalities.

Kevin’s experiment changed the way people look at things medically. “Cyborg” is not anymore a purely SF term.

Lots of things could have gone wrong with the experiment, but as a scientist, it was tremendously exciting! Discovered stuff about the nervous system that nobody knew, because nobody had done this before. Scary but really exciting. Rollercoaster.

It took Kevin’s brain six weeks to recognize the electric pulses it was receiving as a “distance radar”. Boring time, but it took that time to train his brain, and it adapted — he actually “felt” how far things were.

What next? Research on Parkinson’s, by analysing deep brain scans to predict tremors. Also with epileptic patients to try to see when the fit is coming. Parkinson’s: can predict tremors 15-20 seconds before they happen! With epilepsy, 25-30 minutes! steph-note: wow. This can change the patient’s lives!

Cultured brains. After a week, a rat’s brain starts having some “neural firing” (activity), and after a month it’s starting to act like a brain. All the brain knows is that it drives the robot. Not good drivers! Now, trying to teach these biological brains how to drive the robot better. Lots of philosophical questions. steph-note: so, from what I understand, they don’t remove brains from rats, but grow them. Cultured neural networks. Artificial intelligence. steph-note: Cylons!

Watch the video:

Watch a shorter video excerpt about extending his sensory range.

Daniela Cerqui — Cyborgs: what kind of human being are we building? [en]

Kevin Warwick: implant in arm (real surgery!), measure signal when opening closing hand, to see what the right signal for it is. => able to control a robotic hand with his brain (by moving his hand).

Question of feedback. Sensors => capacity to get feedback from the robotic hand.

Applications: blindfolded, used the hand to “feel” something at a distance.

Wife: electrode fired into nerve, no anesthesia, really painful! Brain-to-brain interface, two human systems linked to each other. When he moved his hand, a signal would appear on his wife’s system.

Controlling robotic hand in the UK (from the US) by sending signal through the internet. Implications? will we one day be considered “disabled” if we cannot control a robotic hand across the ocean? We get used to technology and our ethical boundaries shift. What does normal mean?

*(steph-note: lots of photos, very evocative)*

Commercial applications: 2004 nightclubs in Rotterdam and Barcelona use membership implants instead of cards (and Kevin had his first in 98 — just a few years before!)

Kevin’s point of view: if it is used now, then I was right to develop it.

Humans are flexible. Get used to almost anything. Can we redifine ourself without boundaries. When do we become “other than human”?

Kevin looks towards enhancements. Happy with the idea we might become other than human. Promoting cyborgs as a new species.

Often, people draw the line between medical and non-medical applications, but it’s usually impossible to draw the line between therapy and enhancement.

Kevin is not *such* an exception.

We are on the same path as Kevin, whether we like it or not (connecting brains to machines and brains to each other). In our society, being “normal” means being connected.