Direct Link Between Man and Machine


I Am Cyborg
by John R. Quain

Source: Popular Science

By implanting a computer chip into his arm, one man hopes to establish the most direct link yet between man and machine.

Kevin Warwick is going to have a chip on his shoulder. Or rather, a chip in his arm. Next year, he'll undergo an operation to insert a computer-controlled transponder in his body. Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading in England, hopes that by becoming part man and part machine he'll usher in the next information revolution: the era of human-computer communication.

Although today's computers can consume and spit out megabytes of information in seconds, it takes us hours, days, or even months to enter data into a PC. With only crude tools like keyboards, mice, and voice recognition software available to us, our communication with computers is agonizingly slow and awkward. Warwick, author of In the Mind of the Machine (1998), hopes to change all of that. In early 2001, the 45-year-old professor will have a surgeon insert a computer-controlled transmitter/receiver into his upper arm. A collar connector will be attached to the device and surround the nerves in his arm. Once the implant operation is completed, the tiny computing device will start transmitting information about Warwick's every bodily movement and impulse.

"It will pick up signals from my nervous system and transmit them out to the computer," explains Warwick. Such human-to-computer communications will be a first, and it could have tremendous potential in medicine. Chip implants could easily monitor a patient's heart rate, keep tabs on a diabetic's insulin level, or continually monitor a host of other vital signs. But Warwick has his eyes focused further into the future.

"We're looking at movement, of course," Warwick explains, hinting at a whole new area of human and computer interaction. People with microprocessor implants in their bodies could, he suggests, control computers without a keyboard or mouse by merely waving their arms or wiggling a finger. And, by applying this same principle to other machines, we could eliminate countless other outmoded ways of communicating with machines. "It should allow us, eventually," says Warwick, "to drive a car without a steering wheel or gears."

Of course, it takes two to communicate, so the second half of Warwick's experiment will involve computer-to-human transmissions. Once the cybernetics department's computer has finished storing every tiny electrical impulse Warwick's arm emits, it will begin trying to assimilate that information - and then send it back to the implant in Warwick's arm. In what could turn out to be a computer-controlled version of a game of Simon Says, the computer may even make Warwick wave or tap his fingers.

"What's going to happen brain-wise, we're not so sure,"Warwick admits."Will my brain think that strange things are happening, or will it simply be content with what is going on?"

A glass vial containing several microprocessors was inserted into cybernetics pioneer Kevin Warwick's arm in 1998. He's planning to do it again.

Whatever happens, Warwick hopes this will just be the first step toward a cybernetic future where computer chips embedded in our bodies not only help paraplegics walk but also enable us to seamlessly communicate with computers "The feedback part is critical,"he explains,"that's part of the reason I'm being the guinea pig. Unless you have someone that you can ask how they are feeling and what signals they're getting, you won't get to the next step."Becoming a temporary cyborg does have its dangers, however."Sending signals back and forth is a bit of hassle,"admits Warwick,"because we don't want to pick up stray signals or turn me into a walking radio station."Fortunately, Warwick already knows a little of what it's like to join the Borg, the machine-enhanced beings made famous by Star Trek.

Almost two years ago, on August 24, 1998, Warwick became the first cybernaut. In a 20-minute operation using a local anesthetic, Dr. George Boulos inserted a transponder between the skin and muscle of Warwick's upper left arm. Like the fictional implants in The Matrix, Warwick's first computer implant was a small glass vial about an inch long and a tenth of inch wide that contained several microprocessors and an electromagnetic coil. Although Warwick claims the subcutaneous device didn't cause undue discomfort, he did take antibiotics to prevent infection and had the device removed after nine days."I didn't want it to heal over,"he says,"because then it would have been much more difficult to remove."

The point of Warwick's initial foray into cybernetics was to demonstrate the advantages of intelligent buildings. For more than 20 years, the professor has been researching and developing computer-controlled buildings that can recognize people when they approach, automatically adjust heating conditions, and even greet visitors.

With his electronic tag, the computer-controlled elements of the department of cybernetics offices were able to recognize the professor as he moved from place to place. So for more than a week, Warwick became what was in effect a walking Clapper, turning on lights and opening doors automatically wherever he went. His computer even crooned "Good morning, Professor Warwick," and told him when he had new e-mail messages.

Aside from the convenience - or annoyance - of enabling your assistant to always find you, such rudimentary cybernetic implants have enormous potential benefits. Convicted felons could be monitored or prevented from entering certain buildings, such as schools. And you would never lock yourself out of your car, because it would always be able to recognize you.

If all this sounds farfetched, consider that Palm Beach, Florida-based Applied Digital Solutions has already applied for a patent for a tracking and identification device that can be implanted under the skin. According to the company, a prototype of the device should be finished by the end of this year. When it is, ADS expects to be able to employ its Digital Angel implants as personal tracking and recovery systems using the GPS navigation system. And there's already interest from law enforcement and security firms.

Warwick admits that raising the specter of Big Brother was one of the goals of his first experiment. Most of us are likely to be a little uncomfortable with the idea that elevators could recognize us or that employers could know how many times you went to the bathroom and which stall you used. But the professor believes the benefits will outweigh the disadvantages.

"The computer should be able to recognize more than movement," he explains,"it could also recognize emotional signals, like anger, shock, and also pain. Of course, at first it won't know it's anger, but the potential is there to learn it. Eventually, we may get robots to learn 'this is anger' and 'this is pain.'" As Warwick envisions it, a computer that understands human emotions could be of value in resolving conflicts, making humans feel better, and even replacing some conventional drugs.

It doesn't stop there, either. The professor is already thinking about trying out more silicon implants.

"There's the possibility of feeding other information into our bodies," he maintains."The robots in our lab, for example, sense the world in terms of ultrasonics, so why not give that ability to humans? I hope to try that next by combining that information with my visual information and seeing if I can visually tie in to it and give myself an extra sense, an extrasensory perception for real."

By the end of the 21st century, Warwick thinks we all may be tied in together. A world of interconnected cybernetically enhanced humans would allow everyone to experience just about anything. Internet service providers and cellphones with Web access would be a distant memory. Our bodies and brains will be wirelessly connected to the Web.

"We will simply be able to think to each other," he predicts."We will have memories of events that we have not witnessed, and mathematical abilities that far surpass anything today."

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