Running notes from the second European Futurists Conference in Lucerne (Switzerland).
Kevin Warwick is known as "the cyborg" - that's also the title of his 2002 book. He is a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading UK and his fame derives from his work on interfacing directly the human nervous system and computers. Over the years, he has had (1998) an tiny RFID chip implanted under his arm's skin, which he used to communicate with his computer, which in turn controlled doors, lighting, heating systems etc at his office; an electrode array (1.1 mm) directly connected to his nervous system (to the medium nerve, 2002) which allowed him to control a robotic arm. Many have criticized him for seeking publicity, others suggested that he could have done the same using with a smart card - "which is true but that's the technology that we were already using, I was interested in exploring the next stage". Later he talked his wife into having an electrode implanted, too, so that they could study possibilities of virtual telepathy of some sort (and "telesex"?). More recently, during an experiment at Columbia University in NY he wired his nervous system and connected it to the Internet - "it had an IP address" - so that he could steer a robotic arm across the ocean, in Reading.
He is the evening keynote at the EFC06 - he's brilliant and funny as usual - and he focuses his speech on cyborgs: part humans, part machines, "like in that documentary movie called "The Terminator". "If we compare the memory or number-crunching or sensing capabilities of a computer, and even more so of networked computers, we as humans are out of the league. We don't take any infrared, ultrasonic, or other signals for example".
"Another big advantage of machine intelligence: we are limited to look at the world around us in three dimensions. But computers are electronic. The human brain is electrochemical - so partly electronic. So we should be able to connect them: if I do that, could I then "see" the world in thirty dimensions?". And then there is is communication: machines can communicate in parallel, million of conversations simultaneously, precisely, without loss of signal, while we humans have to "translate" the message from brain to voice to ear to brain. "Could we communicate directly from brain to brain?"
Experiments have been done on animals, by using implanted computer chips to deliver stimuli to rats brains and "guide" them, for example. And it worked. "They could be used to go into dangerous areas, find a bomb for example". Warwick posits that "implants will give humans more abilities", although this would raise deep ethical questions, particular if it's about enhancement. "However, there would be fewer questions if this approach is used for therapeutic purposes". In his opinion, the use of implant technology can diminish the effects of certain neural illnesses and increase the range of abilities of those affected. He shows video footage of a patient with Parkinson's disease, that has implants delivering electronic stimulations: the patient's shaking ceases, he gains control of arms and legs; and another of a patient steering a prosthetic arm through a remote control. "Wouldn't it be much better if the signals steering the prosthesis came directly from the brain?", he asks rhetorically. And if signals are put into wires from the brain to the prosthetic arm, "then they can be put everywhere, go into the Internet: what we are really talking about here, is changing the whole concept of body: where it starts and stops, where you really are".
He talks about the "couple cyborg" experiment, when both he and his wife had chips implanted: "every time she moved I could sense it". And of a further experiment where his wife got microneurography - wires were pushed into her nervous system from the outside - "so that we could connect our nervous systems together: signals came from her brain system down her nervous system to move her hand into the wire into my nervous system to my brain, so when she moved her fingers, one-two-three, my brain received the message one-two-three. With brain implants we can maybe do a brain-to-brain thought communication experiment - and I certainly want to be part of that".
He believes that in 30 years everybody will have some sort of implant. "The world is going to be controlled by cyborgs; non-enhanced humans will be a sort of a sub-species". I have about 20 questions for him, but there is no Q&A session.