Communication from an ex- and future cyborg

Yes, Kevin Warwick, the first person to put a chip in his arm. These days, there are a lot of people with subcutaneous chips – some are controlling medical conditions like Parkinsons, and others are controlling access to nightclubs like Baja in Rotterdam. It was a really enjoyable and really unnerving presentation, to which I’ll try to do justice here.

Machine intelligence offers us the prospect of enhanced (in some respects) memory, processing, sensual acuity and communication. Examples include the ability to sense – directly, not translated into the language of our existing five senses – ultra-violet, x-ray, infra-red, multi-dimensions. What excited him particularly was the prospect of transcending our existing communication limitations – to him language – “trivial, coded, serial messages” – is “pathetic” and “highly embarrassing” in its inadequacy for representing complex concepts (who’s looking, though – rabbits? Martians? Computers????). The Internet offers the prospect for people to exist physically separate from a proportion of their senses.

Early research involved developing machines with instincts, but they didn’t surpass the intelligence of a wasp. He is experimenting with topsy-turvy cyborgs – machines with implanted human neural cultures. Regarding conventional cyborgs, brain implants allowed scientists to drive a rat (to investigate a suspect bomb – this isn’t gratuitous) and different ones cured the muscle spasms of a severely debilitated Parkinsons patient (at the Radcliffe, one patient a week receives an implant which is so successful that they become addicted, leave them on all the time and use up all the juice – and who can blame them).

His chip allowed him to sense with his hand when his wired-up wife Irena moved her hand – the signal was not interpretted very well by his brain – he didn’t feel per se Irena move her hand, he didn’t perceive another hand, there was no proprioception – but as he says, a “channel of sensation was opened”. He also had a sonic hat which allowed him to follow or avoid an object without using sight or touch. Irena was wired later, allowing them to make a circuit and communicate nervous system to nervous system.

On the ethical front he was flippant. He spends a lot of time these days pointing out the impossibility of distinguishing between therapy and enhancement. He acted unconcerned about the possibilities for surveillance and manipulation. What happens if you want to check up on your kids, for example? Or your Alzheimers-riddled relative? Or paedophiles? Or political dissenters – if they had that technology in Iran, China …? Having watched the e-voting film, I’m conscious of what I already knew: that the law takes a long time to catch up with technology. He dismisses the views of Roger Penrose who writes about humanity and computers, who he says makes points people merely want to hear so that they can “curl up with their cocoa at night” for a little longer and tell themselves that cyborgism will never happen. He says (drily but not exactly joking) that if people choose to remain as they are, that’s fine – if they want to be a sub-group.

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