Monday, December 25, 2006

We'll all be cyborgs someday, scientist says

In Casino Royale, the latest James Bond movie, Bond is implanted with a microchip that allows headquarters to track his whereabouts and monitor his vital signs.

If a British cybernetics expert is right, the day will come when most people are implanted with chips -- and the real-life chips will do a lot more than Bond's does in the movie.

Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, has first-hand knowledge. In 1998, he had a chip surgically inserted into his left arm, becoming he believes the first human ever implanted with a computer chip.

Since then, he's had a more sophisticated chip connected directly to his nervous system. He is still working toward his grandest experiment: having a chip implanted in his brain.

''I want to become a cyborg,'' he said with an infectious grin. ``I can see the advantages.''

A cyborg, for the record, is a mixture of man and machine. And cybernetics is the study of communication and control between humans and computers.


Warwick, who is 52, presides excitedly over the apparent chaos at the university's MAD lab. (The name stands not for madness but Mobile Autonomic Devices.)

Cables and machine parts litter the work benches. On the floor, two robots the size of model cars race around, mapping their environment and learning how not to bump into things. Nearby, a robot with a skull for a head works on combining the input from his various senses -- audio, video, ultrasonics, radar and infrared -- to interpret what's going on around it.

And in another lab on campus, computers are being controlled by living tissue taken from the brains of rats.

But Warwick's most daring experiments have been on himself. On Aug. 24, 1998, as the BBC filmed, doctors made a small incision in Warwick's left arm, slid in a thin inch-long glass capsule, and stitched him back up.

The capsule contained silicon microchips that announced Warwick's presence to other computers. His office doors swung open as he approached. Lights flicked on as he entered. His computer said hello and told him how many e-mails were waiting.

That chip stayed in for a couple of weeks. It's now on display at the Science Museum in London.

In 2002, doctors sliced open Warwick's left wrist and implanted a much smaller and more sophisticated device. For three months, its 100 electrodes were connected to his median nerves, linking his nervous system to a computer.

''I moved my hand, and my neural signals were sent over the Internet to open and close a robot hand,'' he said.

Not only that: The robotic hand had sensors. As it grasped a sponge or an eyeglasses case, it sent information back to Warwick.

''It was tremendously exciting,'' Warwick said. ``I experienced it as signals in my brain -- which my brain was quite happy to recognize as feedback from the robot hand's fingertips.''


The research has significant medical implications.

Paralyzed people might regain movement if one chip were implanted above the break in the nerves and another below to receive the impulses, Warwick said.

More intelligent chips in the brains of people with Parkinson's disease might sense when tremors were on the way and signal the brain to stop them.

''It's like a computer brain out-thinking a human brain,'' he said.

But Warwick's biggest experiment, in which he will have a chip implanted in his brain, is seven or eight years away. He will attempt thought communication -- ''literally the first brain-to-brain communication,'' he said.

''That excites me beyond all proportion,'' he said. ``Nothing is going to stop me from doing that.''


Not everyone approves of Warwick. From time to time, he receives missives from people he calls ''religious extremists'' telling him he is tampering with God's work.

And in an opinion piece this month in the Toronto Star, Kevin Haggerty, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, called Warwick part of the ''advance guard'' trying to expand chip technology as widely as possible. The day will come, Haggerty warned, when all people will be chipped and the government will be able to track them all the time, recording their smallest behavioral traits.


Despite differing over the desirability of implantation, Warwick and Haggerty agree on a great deal.

For one thing, the procedure is now more common.

More and more pet owners are taking advantage of chip implants that transmit identification to veterinarians.

Still, Warwick said, important questions will have to be answered for humans.

''Is it OK to upgrade? What about the people who don't upgrade?'' he asked. ``If they don't upgrade, they could become some sort of subspecies.''