Kevin Warwick thinks of himself as a cyborg. The professor of cybernetics pioneered the use of implants, after having a chip embedded in his left arm to link his nervous system to a computer and control robotic limbs. That was as far back as 2002. More recently he’s been working on a cure for the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, and investigating how much further implants can go. He believes that, in time, implants will be everywhere. Upgrading ourselves with brand new senses could, potentially, become as simple as buying the latest iPhone.
Warwick has also always been something of an outsider – a real-life cyberpunk. So much so that he’s now an icon to an outlying community of people with cybernetic implants – they call themselves ‘transhumans’ and ‘grinders’ (no, nothing to do with the app) – who believing in using them to transform human attributes such as intelligence and strength, kind of like Adam Jensen in video game Deus Ex. ‘I’ve always felt included by transhumans and grinders, and been taken in by them as part of that scene,’ Warwick tells RISING. ‘I respect that, but what’s next?’
RISING What inspired you to, well, transform yourself into a cyborg?
KEVIN WARWICK ‘I guess as a kid I always liked tech. I loved sci-fi, although I was disappointed by the end of The War Of The Worlds, where the machines take over and then die. That was a bit Hollywood for me. And my father suffered from agoraphobia. Eventually he had a lobotomy, where they drilled holes in his head and removed a couple of brain cells. A short while later he was back at work, and I found it fascinating that a small change in the brain could bring about a massive change in personality. That led me to my own experiments.’
RISING Have you faced opposition from traditionalists who think implanting things into yourself is unethical?
KW ‘Philosophically it was a big issue for some. I’ve faced all sorts of criticism, but I’ve always wanted to do something in life to make a difference. I’ve always been outside the mainstream.’
RISING What are you working on now?
KW ‘Three things. Firstly, I’m working on the Turing test, which is about how to tell the difference between man and machine. Secondly, I’m still working on Parkinson’s Disease. The brain is electro-chemical and drugs are chemical. Now we have the technology to change that and develop electronic drugs. And thirdly, I’m working on more implants, and where we can take them next.’
‘The brain is mercenary. If it wants to do something, it will’
RISING So where’s that? A lot of the developments in cybernetics seem to be around the senses – X-ray vision, infrared vision, even seismographs so people can predict earthquakes?
KW ‘These are very real things, happening now. Implants will also have a big effect on sporting performance and length of life – sensors will be used to relay information, as well as enhance human performance. Measuring blood pressure, temperature, fluid flow and the like doesn’t sound very glamorous but has massive implications for athletes and ordinary people alike. And they can go even further. I’m working on bridging a gap in the spinal cord and rewiring the nervous system, to allow people who’ve been paralysed to walk again. Thanks to the plasticity of the brain we can relearn how to do things. The brain is mercenary. If it wants to do something, it will.’
RISING That’s slightly scary on the part of the brain. So what’s your ultimate goal?
KW ‘The experiment I want to do next is to link brains together. There’s no shortage of volunteers, and it’s an area that’s becoming more mainstream. Human enhancement is in vogue right now. I once felt like a stranger on the shore, but there are an awful lot more people wanting to get involved.’
‘The ability to link up electronically with artificial intelligence and plug into a network offers enormous possibilities’
RISING When you had your own implants you said you preferred life as a cyborg. What does that mean?
KW ‘Think about how we’re limited physically. We can’t fly without an aeroplane. We can’t travel at 100mph without a car. It’s the same with our brains, but the ability to link up electronically with artificial intelligence and plug into a network offers enormous possibilities.’
RISING So what will linking brains together achieve?
KW ‘This will annoy Darwinians, who think we are determined purely by our genetics, but I think there’s the possibility to do things that will affect our genetic make-up. Brain cells like to communicate. If you separate them, they try to hook back up. It’s why kids love social media – you can’t blame them. We’ve evolved to be like that. If we can link our brains together I think our brains will go for it. Boom, we’ve been upgraded. We’ll be able to communicate in a much richer form than that old-fashioned coded message system called speech.’
RISING So the future will be about heightening our senses, rather than living in a virtual reality?
KW ‘Our senses are so limited, we hardly recognise anything that’s going on. We can’t sense ultrasonically, can’t sense water vapour, can’t sense infrared – but with implants we can, and we have the potential to dramatically increase how we respond to the world around us.’
RISING There’s the case of Neil Harbisson, a man who couldn’t see colour who’s had an antenna embedded in his skull. A fibre-optic sensor turns colours into sound frequencies, so his skull is effectively a third ear and he says what he experiences is more like a sixth sense. It seems there’s still a lot we don’t understand?
KW ‘Linking our brains to computers opens up the possibility of understanding many more dimensions. Most humans are limited to 3D. It’s said that physicists can operate in 10-12D, but computers work in hundreds of dimensions. That’s what the brain would need to do to make space travel like we see it in Star Trek, so we could travel to a different galaxy in seconds. Here’s a wormhole – let’s go through it. Want to go to Pluto? Let’s do it. Extra dimensions will transform our lives in unimaginable ways.’
RISING Could technology help humans achieve immortality?
KW ‘I believe we already live on genetically, to a degree. We don’t know for definite but I think that helps explain things like déjà vu, because we pass on experiences through our genes. But the body’s job is to carry the brain around, and it doesn’t do it very well. Bodies get disease and wear out. If you can keep the brain going outside of the body, or in a technological body that allows you to change or replace bits, you get rid of the problem. Then, can we replace the brain, cell by cell? I don’t know! It’s a big question.’
RISING Maybe one day we’ll be able to download our consciousness onto a computer – or even our smartphone?
KW ‘The machine brain thinks differently to the human brain, so even if one day it’s possible to download your consciousness, I think it would be the most traumatic thing imaginable. You can play around with the brain though – I’ve grown cells, in a dish in a lab, and added them to a robot body. It’s part biology, part tech, and you can potentially change a brain’s function. You can make it complete. But this is pure speculation – for now.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch this short video about what humanity might evolve to look like in 1,000 years – assuming we’re not wiped out by cyberpunks with flechette guns loaded in their eyes, that is.