Professor's self-experiments in cybernetics have provoked debate in the field
September 19, 2010 4:00 AM
Kevin Warwick is the first person to have had a neural interface implanted into his body. Here, he shows the scars from the surgery in which the device was implanted.
Dr. Kevin Warwick, a professor in the School of Systems Engineering at the University of Reading in England, is the first person to have ever had a neural interface implanted into his body. He recently visited Pittsburgh where his work was met with mixed reviews.
Kevin Warwick gives a lecture at Gregg Hall on Carnegie Mellon University's campus. Dr. Warwick is the first person to have ever had a neural interface implanted into his body.
By Sean D. Hamill Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
No one disagrees that Kevin Warwick was the first person to implant computer chips into his body, which he likes to say made him the first "human cyborg."
But what colleagues do hotly disagree on is whether this British cybernetics professor's work is good science with tangible benefits for the field, or if it's just "entertainment," as one of his critics here in Pittsburgh put it after Dr. Warwick's recent visit and lectures.
"I think it's important that we distinguish entertainment from academics, and Kevin is the entertainment part. I don't want people to be confused about that," said Andrew Schwartz, a University of Pittsburgh professor of neurobiology known for his work inserting electrode arrays into monkeys and studying the potential benefits for humans.
Just down the road, though, Yang Cai, founder of Carnegie Mellon University's Instinctive Computing Lab, which studies videometrics and visualizations, couldn't see Dr. Warwick's work more differently.
"I believe Professor Warwick's work is very profound," said Dr. Cai, who brought on Dr. Warwick as an official adviser to his lab last year. "He has had a lot of philosophical impact on issues between biological and robotic systems."
The debate is nothing new to Dr. Warwick, who has been alternately pilloried and lauded for his work since he first temporarily inserted an RFID transmitter in his left forearm in 1998.
"I've heard it for years, but I thought it had died down," said Dr. Warwick.
That first relatively simple experiment allowed the transmitter to identify him to monitoring computers in his lab, so that, for example, he was greeted as he entered work each day. The goal was simply to see how the body would react to having the device in his body.
He followed that in 2002 by temporarily inserting a more complex neural interface that -- among other experiments -- allowed him to connect his nervous system to the Internet, and then even connect to an implant inserted in his wife's arm.
The connection with his wife allowed him to feel a pulse every time she moved her hand, which Dr. Warwick maintains was significant science because "it was the first time humans had ever communicated brain-to-brain. We were able to communicate without speaking."
The benefits from the research could not only be the titillating, cyborg-like implications -- devising "enhanced" humans -- but, he believes, more immediately it could reveal more about people with neurological diseases such as Parkinson's and epilepsy.
Dr. Warwick believes most of the criticism he gets is from scientists, like Dr. Schwartz, who don't like the way he gives his layman-friendly lectures on his research.
"I'm not going to stop and hide behind the parapet and start using boring language that would have kids falling asleep in my lectures," he said.
While his presentation earlier this month to professors at Pitt was more academic, a lecture two days later to CMU students was a rollicking, mass-media affair -- a mix of Dr. Warwick lecturing between snippets of videos from television productions about his various experiments.
He provocatively ended it by telling the students: "Hopefully you'll all want to join me as a cyborg of the future, or decide if you want to be part of this subspecies called humans."
The nearly 200 students who filled the lecture hall responded with rousing applause.
"I thought it was awesome," Jason Fouch, 19, a freshman physics major, said after the lecture. "I liked what he had to say. Any kind of improvement we can do to ourselves is much needed."
The main reason Dr. Warwick was asked to give the lectures was because of the prominence surrounding "Project Cyborg," as he calls the experiments, but also the debate surrounding the ethics of what he did.
Yu-Li Wang, head of the biomedical engineering department at CMU, who invited Dr. Warwick to give his lecture to students, said he did so after Dr. Cai suggested him as someone whom students should hear.
"I didn't know him, but I did a quick Google search on him and I realized the potential impact he could have right away," Dr. Wang said. "His cyborg work is certainly provocative."
Dr. Schwartz, who had Dr. Warwick visit his lab during his visit to Pittsburgh, said he's happy to have someone like Dr. Warwick giving generalized lectures, but beyond that "his kind of work is not very scientific."
He said Dr. Warwick's second experiment could have been a significant project, but "they didn't go into the research far enough" to derive any benefit to the field.
"I think it's useful in engendering enthusiasm for this kind of work," he said, but it doesn't get us very far in advancing us scientifically in any real way."
Dr. Cai said the criticism fails to take into account that, above all, Dr. Warwick "was the first to do it."
"It's like when Columbus sailed across the ocean and everyone in Europe said, 'Oh, I could have done that,' " Dr. Cai said. "But they didn't."
Dr. Warwick is preparing to possibly endure another round of debate by conducting a third experiment on himself.
To advance his work even further, he said he is thinking about inserting an electrical array into his brain, to see if he can connect his brain, for example, to a computer and communicate with it through his thoughts alone, or turn on a light simply by thinking about it.
"For me, the communication thing is the biggie, and exploring that would require putting electrodes in the cortex," he said.
His wife, however, is concerned about the potential health problems. She wants him to stay healthy as long as possible, he said, and has asked him to not consider doing it until he's at least 60.