Luke Robert Mason: You’re lis­ten­ing to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.

On this episode I speak to the pio­neer­ing pro­fes­sor of cyber­net­ics, Kevin Warwick.

We plugged my ner­vous sys­tem live onto the Internet and linked to a robot hand back in Reading in England. So my brain sig­nals in New York were con­trol­ling a robot hand in Reading in real-time, and I could also feel what the hand felt.
Prof. Kevin Warwick, excerpt from interview

Kevin shared his thoughts on aug­ment­ing human capa­bil­i­ties, the excit­ing field of robot­ics, and what it means to be a cyborg. 

This episode was record­ed on loca­tion at Coventry University in the United Kingdom, where Kevin is the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research.

Luke Robert Mason: So Professor Kevin Warwick, you are the world’s first cyborg. What does that mean?

Kevin Warwick: Yeah, well I like to think so, Luke. Well, to me a cyborg is a bit like the sci­ence fic­tion def­i­n­i­tion. So you take a human, you implant some tech­nol­o­gy into them or with them in a pret­ty per­ma­nent way, and give them extra abil­i­ties. So I know that some peo­ple think cyborgs may be…somebody who can ride a bicy­cle is a cyborg because they have some technology—I mean that’s not real­ly what we’re talk­ing about with cyborgs. And also wear­ing glass­es where you take them off and— It does­n’t change men­tal­ly what you think you can do. And it’s not just repairing…prosthetics, to replace a leg. I think it’s when you get extra abil­i­ties and you have tech­nol­o­gy that’s implant­ed in you. And yeah, I’ve been there and hence… You know, I don’t oppose such a def­i­n­i­tion of myself, yeah.

Mason: So what were some of those projects that got you that title of the world’s first cyborg? I know the first one was BrainGate, is that right?

Warwick: Well no, the first one was actu­al­ly an RFID that was… I mean, that was back in 98 when I was just a wee tot, as it were. But you have to think, at the time nobody had had an implant of any­thing like that. People had cochlear implants and so on. But I had an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Device), which iden­ti­fied me to the com­put­er in my build­ing. So as I walked around lights came on and doors opened, all sorts of fun things like that. 

And then four years lat­er yes, I had a BrainGate implant­ed. It was the first BrainGate to be implant­ed in a human. And it was in my periph­er­al ner­vous sys­tem. I’m wav­ing my left arm around here. I think you can still see some some scars from the oper­a­tion. And it was implant­ed in my ner­vous sys­tem to link my ner­vous sys­tem with the com­put­er. And it was in there for just over three months for the exper­i­ment. And we did all sorts of fun projects. Some of them, let’s say I move my hand and we sent those neur­al sig­nals that did that, which we could pick up mon­i­tor­ing the sig­nals from the implant, and send them out to a robot arm. So my brain sig­nals were mov­ing my arm, as they do, but also mov­ing a robot arm. 

And I did that as an extra, always try­ing to push the bound­aries. I went to New York to Columbia University. We plugged my ner­vous sys­tem live onto the Internet and linked to a robot hand back in Reading in England. So my brain sig­nals in New York were con­trol­ling a robot hand in Reading in real-time and I could also feel what the hand felt because the robot hand had sen­sors in the fin­ger­tips. And we could send back sig­nals. So I got a feel­ing. This was in terms of elec­tri­cal puls­es that my brain could under­stand, and as the puls­es increased so the hand was grip­ping an object more. And so I had this extra sense of feel­ing, if you like, from the UK back to the US.

Mason: So what are some of the respons­es that you get when peo­ple hear about these sorts of inter­ven­tions into your own body?

Warwick: Well, I mean peo­ple are still inter­est­ed. You’re talk­ing to me now. So peo­ple are still inter­est­ed to find out what did it feel like, some peo­ple want to know. Of course you get that audi­ence which, Oh yeah…grumble grum­ble.” I’m not sure why. Maybe because they did­n’t do it themselves. 

And of course in the med­ical world, the same implant now has been used a num­ber of times for par­a­lyzed indi­vid­u­als to do exact­ly what I’ve just been talk­ing about, only in this case they can’t move the hand so it’s giv­ing them the oppor­tu­ni­ty either to move a robot arm from just think­ing about it effec­tive­ly. Or in one case now recent­ly they’ve put a sleeve around the wrist of a par­a­lyzed indi­vid­ual, and when he thinks about moving—which he can’t do himself—the sig­nals from his brain are used to stim­u­late the mus­cles in his arm so it actu­al­ly brings back some move­ment for him. I think ulti­mate­ly, though, that will con­nect not to a sleeve not round his arm but into the nerves. So it will be effec­tive­ly short-circuiting the break in his ner­vous sys­tem that caus­es his paralysis.

Mason: So in those cas­es it’s, for want of a bet­ter word, it’s dis­abled indi­vid­u­als who get access to this tech­nol­o­gy first. I mean, to a degree you’re argu­ing that able-bodied indi­vid­u­als should be able to use this tech­nol­o­gy to cre­ate new experiences.

Warwick: Oh, very much so. I mean the ther­a­peu­tic side of things, the sys­tem, the world sys­tem, the med­ical world and so on, is set up to cater for that, to exper­i­ment to some extent. And hence when I had the BrainGate first and exper­i­ment­ed both in terms of ther­a­py and in terms of enhance­ment. And the ther­a­peu­tic side of things—there are now prob­a­bly about five or six peo­ple that have also expe­ri­enced it for ther­a­py. Because they’re paralyzed. 

But the enhance­ment thing… I mean, I was expect­ing you, Luke, to have a go your­self with it. Because that to me is the real­ly excit­ing area. Humans, we’re pret­ty lim­it­ed in what we can do, let’s face it, men­tal­ly par­tic­u­lar­ly. We just have a bunch of brain cells. And the pos­si­bil­i­ty of enhanc­ing our brain, our men­tal capa­bil­i­ties, I think is enor­mous. And what we could be able to do with implants like BrainGate I think is incred­i­ble. But we’re not doing it yet. So that that for me is real­ly where the real excite­ment exists in the enhance­ment side through implants.

Mason: Well, even in the last cou­ple of months there’s folks like, sud­den­ly Elon Musk and the entre­pre­neur Brian Johnson have entered the mar­ket. Elon with Neuralink and Brian Johnson with the Kernel, both want to cre­ate a neur­al prosthetic.

Warwick: Yes. Yes.

Mason: And to a degree that’s a response to the fear of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. They see neur­al pros­thet­ics as a way of upgrad­ing human­i­ty to deal with the com­ing AIAI apoc­a­lypse in some cas­es. Do you agree that these projects—

Warwick: Oh, a hun­dred per­cent. But I mean, in 1997 (we’re real­ly going back into the last mil­len­ni­um now), I pub­lished a book called March of the Machines which was look­ing at the poten­tial AI apoc­a­lypse, say­ing in some­thing like fifty years’ time (so 2050; it was putting a sce­nario in 2050) of an AI apoc­a­lypse. Because humans are cre­at­ing machines with a sort of intel­li­gence that we don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly under­stand, par­tic­u­lar­ly with a net­worked intel­li­gence, which we don’t real­ly have our­selves. And defer­ring to it more and more.

So I def­i­nite­ly saw the dan­gers and can see them now. And it’s great that Elon and oth­ers are com­ing on board and also see­ing the dan­gers so that dif­fer­ent peo­ple com­ing from dif­fer­ent angles can see the threat, and hence as humans what are we going to do about it? Just take it on the chin? Well then what? We become second-class cit­i­zens? You know, we’ve got machines run­ning the show Terminator-style. What’s going to hap­pen to humans? The best we can hope for is that we’re kept as pets or you know, in a zoo or some­thing like that. Well frankly I don’t fan­cy that myself. So the alter­na­tive, the only alter­na­tive, is real­ly to encap­su­late that AI your­self. You know, if you can’t beat them join them. 

So to upgrade your­self. And it’s good that Elon and oth­ers are now sug­gest­ing the same sort of approach. And that’s real­ly what the implant that I had—it was a step in that direc­tion. To see could we upgrade humans? Can we enhance humans to some extent? If so, what does it mean?

Mason: But the gen­er­al pub­lic has this very vis­cer­al response to any sort of tech­nol­o­gy that’s placed under the skin. Do you think these devices will con­tin­u­al­ly be sil­i­con or do you think they’ll be more of a bio­log­i­cal enhancement?

Warwick: I think it could be both. It could be both. I mean sil­i­con… There’s lots of mate­ri­als. Materials are not a prob­lem. I’ve got some plat­inum wires that are still in my arm. They’ve been there since 2002. And they don’t do any­thing. They pop up occa­sion­al­ly, I push them back in. But they’re not actu­al­ly doing— The body does­n’t both­er about plat­inum, tita­ni­um… I’ve now got via a gap in my tooth there, I’m hav­ing a tooth implant. There’s a big tita­ni­um screw in my bone. The body does­n’t both­er [inaudi­ble crosstalk].

Mason: I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for the inter­ac­tion with your den­tist when he said you had to have a tooth implant and you went, Ah, no that’s noth­ing. I’ve had worse elsewhere.”

Warwick: Yeah yeah. Go head. Let’s get on with it. Well what hap­pened was it was exact­ly that. But the point is there’s lots of mate­ri­als the body does­n’t both­er about at all. But, that’s look­ing at one way of doing it, and there’s lots of oth­er ways of doing it like grow­ing enti­ties. We grow brains for robots in a lit­tle dish. I mean there’s a dif­fer­ent approach to the whole pos­si­bil­i­ty. So a mix­ture, some tech­no­log­i­cal some bio­log­i­cal. And I think there are all sorts of dif­fer­ent mix­tures of what could be possible.

Mason: So how did this inter­est in arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, robot­ics, cyborgs, where did that first come about?

Warwick: Oh, I think as a kid I was very much into tech­nol­o­gy. I mean then it was things like motor­cy­cles and so on. But at the same time sci­ence fic­tion. I thor­ough­ly enjoyed as a kid War of the Worlds. Really dis­ap­point­ed at the end­ing. I think H.G. Wells could have done bet­ter— You know humans win. I think oh come on. But apart from that. And Michael Crichton I think always inspired me. He wrote a book called Terminal Man, and that I thought was bril­liant. I saw it more of a sci­en­tif­ic book. Which again was sort of how Crichton is. It’s sort of pseu­do­science, as it were. But the whole pos­si­bil­i­ty of some­body hav­ing an implant in his brain, which is what Crichton was talk­ing about way back now, and then how that affects his brain, Crichton real­ly looked at. But for me it was inspiration. 

My father had ago­ra­pho­bia and they oper­at­ed on him at the time. As he described it, they drilled a cou­ple of holes in the top of his head and cut out some of his brain cells in order to get rid of his ago­ra­pho­bia. That’s not some­thing they do now because of the dan­gers asso­ci­at­ed with it. But for him, it got rid of his ago­ra­pho­bia. I mean, he was an extreme case. But to see the tran­si­tion, for him, of just chang­ing a few brain cells—that’s all that happened—and yet it com­plete­ly cured his ago­ra­pho­bia, was bril­liant. Which over­turns a lot of phi­lo— There are some philoso­phers that, Oh, you can take out a few brain cells, it does­n’t make any dif­fer­ence to the brain.” That’s a load of codswal­lop, which is typ­i­cal of some philoso­phers. You can take out a few brain cells, it makes a dra­mat­ic dif­fer­ence to the per­son. I saw it with my father, exact­ly what happened.

Sometimes it may not make a dif­fer­ence, but some­times it can make a dra­mat­ic dif­fer­ence. And the pos­si­bil­i­ty there for putting sig­nals into some­body’s brain that com­plete­ly changes their per­son­al­i­ty in some way I think it is a fan­tas­tic oppor­tu­ni­ty, both for ther­a­py but also to change the per­son, poten­tial­ly to enhance them.

Mason: Well, there’s some degree that you may be able enhance the human but also they’ll be changed fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent­ly. You’re talk­ing about chang­ing some­one’s fun­da­men­tal sense of self with these tools. People get very vis­cer­al­ly neg­a­tive towards that idea. There’s a feel­ing that tech­nol­o­gy is a con­trol mech­a­nism rather than some­thing that you work togeth­er with. I mean, what’s your response to [crosstalk] peo­ple who have that feeling? 

Warwick: But I think there are peo­ple who… I don’t know, how can I describe it? Even with intel­li­gent machines, oh it’s nev­er going to hap­pen. We’ll always be in con­trol of them.” And oth­er peo­ple, Oh, that’s great that you are say­ing that. Have a knight­hood or what­ev­er, who­ev­er you are.” I won’t men­tion Roger Penrose or any­thing like that. No log­i­cal argu­ment but oh, they’ll nev­er be a prob­lem. People want to hear it so we don’t have to wor­ry about it. 

But it’s rub­bish, philo­soph­i­cal­ly. There is a poten­tial dan­ger from intel­li­gent machines; we have to face it. And when it comes to inte­grat­ing the body with tech­nol­o­gy yeah, it is going to affect how the brain is. You take on extra abil­i­ties, you may lose some, you may…may well, I would think, in terms of how eth­i­cal­ly you con­sid­er your­self and oth­er peo­ple with­in the world, dra­mat­i­cal­ly change your beliefs. 

I mean look, you’re just a reg­u­lar human at the moment. 

Mason: [inaudi­ble]

Warwick: Roughly speaking.

Mason: Alright, okay. I’ll be a reg­u­lar human.

Warwick: A reg­u­lar human. And let’s say here I am and I upgrade from being a reg­u­lar human. I have implants that allow me to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers just by think­ing about it. And then I’d have some oth­ers who also have implants that we can com­mu­ni­cate by thought. Now, you’re just a reg­u­lar human. You have no idea what we’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing. You’re com­ing out with these sil­ly human nois­es called speech, these mechan­i­cal pres­sure waves. Meanwhile we’re on a whole dif­fer­ent plane, just in terms of communication. 

So you say, Hold on a minute. I don’t like you doing…” What are we going to think about you mak­ing these sil­ly nois­es? I mean, are we going to say, Yeah we’ll pay atten­tion to what this idiot’s say­ing? He can’t com­mu­ni­cate like we do.” I mean Nietzsche had phi­los­o­phy that looked at this. How peo­ple who have upgrad­ing implants that allow them to not just com­mu­ni­cate by thought but to con­trol tech­nol­o­gy wher­ev­er in the world from their brain, etc. Have new sen­so­ry input. Can under­stand the world in more dimen­sions, blah blah blah blah blah. How you’re going to regard a reg­u­lar human? Probably not very well.

But if I look myself, I would say, Well, I have the right to upgrade, as an indi­vid­ual. To upgrade if I want and implant like this. To have some of those abil­i­ties.” And humans, through­out from when humans appeared, have gone in to improve our­selves. We start­ed to fly. We dri­ve cars. We have all sorts of tech­nol­o­gy, so humans will go for it. Humans will go for the upgrade. That’s what will hap­pen, and some peo­ple will get left behind.

Mason: But do you think that the thing that will real­ly stop the abil­i­ty for human­i­ty to upgrade in these sorts of ways is the nation-state? Do you think there will be some sort of top-down gov­ern­men­tal con­trol say­ing we should­n’t be doing this to the body, or we should­n’t be doing this to ourselves?

Warwick: I’m sure there will be some peo­ple that try and put that down. But…it hap­pens, it hap­pens. But I’m not sure now how much the nation-state is that impor­tant, in terms of how it was. Particularly with com­put­ing, with the Internet. You know. It’s more of a glob­al state now.

And I can’t see why we don’t have a glob­al time, for exam­ple. Why do we still have these stu­pid times around the world? We pro­gressed from hav­ing times in one town and anoth­er time—so we have regions now with com­put­ers. I think we should have just one glob­al time. We all work on the same time. And it’s the same in terms of ethics and things like this. I think that we need to move to the next step now, instead of hav­ing triv­ial lit­tle argu­ments between nation-states and things like that. Let’s get on with the new world and progress in ways that we can push the boundaries. 

But I think with tech­nol­o­gy and what we’re look­ing at in terms of enhance­ment and upgrad­ing, that could be the leap for­ward. That could be the step for­ward. Whether you can regard it as an evo­lu­tion­ary step of course is down to your genet­ic argu­ment and do you believe in this way or that. But I think it could give us that major push for­ward in a non­lin­ear way, and those that do upgrade will not be both­ered at all by sil­ly ideas of nations-states.

Mason: Well, does the end goal need to be enhance­ment, nec­es­sar­i­ly? Does it need to be an upgrade? So you look at the new gen­er­a­tion of cyborgs such as Neil Harbisson. He does­n’t see his abil­i­ty to hear col­or— He’s a cyborg artist with an anten­na that allows him to hear color—

Warwick: He’s fan­tas­tic. And it’s inter­est­ing with him, the way his new abil­i­ty, because he was col­or­blind orig­i­nal­ly, but his new abil­i­ty now gives him an incred­i­ble dis­crim­i­na­tion for dif­fer­ent col­ors. Which is much bet­ter than my nor­mal thing. He has a bet­ter abil­i­ty because of how the infor­ma­tion is being brought in in a dif­fer­ent way.

Mason: But he does­n’t see it so much as an upgrade but as a dif­fer­ent sen­so­ry modal­i­ty. He sees it as anoth­er an organ, anoth­er part of his body… 

Warwick: Yeah.

Mason: But… I mean, it’s…there’s that tricky space because he was col­or­blind before he had this device. Then to a cer­tain degree it could be argued that it’s an enhance­ment on his pre-existing body. But in anoth­er sort of way, any­body can have this anten­na and it would just change the way they see the world; it won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly upgrade the way they see the world.

Warwick: But it’s just mak­ing that step. I mean, in his case it was sort of a replace­ment, but now it’s giv­en him an abil­i­ty beyond what humans have. For the exper­i­ment that I did, I did­n’t have a med­ical prob­lem. So when I was able to con­trol a robot hand across the Internet and so on from my brain, it was direct­ly an extra abil­i­ty. And you have to make that step for­ward your­self. Which I think peo­ple will gen­er­al­ly do if they regard it as being rel­a­tive­ly safe, and if they think it’s going to give them lots of oth­er abilities.

I’ll take an exam­ple with this, laser eye surgery. If I said about twen­ty years ago, I’m going to give you laser eye surgery,” you’d just you know, Are you crazy? You’re going to blast lasers into my eyes? It’s high­ly dan­ger­ous. No way do I want any­thing like that.” That would’ve been the response; it’d would’ve been per­fect­ly nor­mal. Now, some­body has poor eye­sight in one way or anoth­er, they want laser eye surgery because it’s deemed to be safe, it works all the time, there’s no neg­a­tive after-effect. And it dra­mat­i­cal­ly improves your eyesight.

So as long as implant tech­nol­o­gy and the sort of thing we’re talk­ing about is deemed to be rea­son­ably safe and it gives you cer­tain abil­i­ties that you would­n’t have oth­er­wise, such as the abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate just by think­ing to each oth­er, I think peo­ple will go for it. It’s get­ting over that step.

Mason: Well and it seems espe­cial­ly the RFID tag tech­nol­o­gy, it seems to be now in cer­tain parts of Europe you can only enter your office if you get a chip. There’s whole orga­ni­za­tions who are telling their employ­ees that they must be chipped. And I think that’s at least a good exam­ple of one of the pieces in embed­ded and implant­ed tech­nol­o­gy that has become social­ly accept­able, part­ly because we real­ize that it does­n’t have any neg­a­tive long-term effects. You can go into MRI machines and you can go through air­port scan­ners and these things don’t fly and rip out of your body, and they’re don’t necessarily—

Warwick: There are thou­sands and thou­sands peo­ple who’ve got RFIDs implant­ed now. And I think it will be used more and more. I was at a health con­fer­ence yes­ter­day, and it was talk­ing there about the use of RFID chips part­ly to iden­ti­fy patients, to make sure—for secu­ri­ty to make sure they’ve got the right per­son. But also if some­body is hav­ing an oper­a­tion on a limb, to put an RFID chip in the limb that’s going to be oper­at­ed on to make sure that they get the right limb. Because you have mis­takes crop­ping up. So, exam­ples there, where it will pro­vide a degree of safe­ty. And if you say to some­body, Okay, now I’m going to implant this small lit­tle thing. It’s the size of a grain of rice but it’s to make sure that we oper­ate on the right leg—” Sorry, the appro­pri­ate leg. Then the per­son, Okay, sure. Happy to take that to make sure you do—” So it’s when the per­son sees the ben­e­fits that are there and they deem it to be pret­ty safe. And that’s one prime exam­ple. We’re going to see an awful lot more.

Mason: Do you think we’ll all be chipped from birth?

Warwick: I can’t see why not, yeah. One would need to. But I can’t see why not. I mean it depends what chips are going to be put in. Just an RFID as a pass­port type of thing has ben­e­fits. You might need to upgrade your implant from time to time. But I think it pro­vides a wide vari­ety— I’d like an implant that gives me an x‑ray sense, for exam­ple. But it’d be good to have it at birth. So as the per­son devel­ops at birth, they devel­op with that new sense as though it’s always been there.

Mason: So why an x‑ray sense?

Warwick: Well I mean I had an ultra­son­ic sense, which is cool. If you haven’t expe­ri­enced it, it gives you a— Ultrasonics gives you a fan­tas­tic sense of dis­tance, very accu­rate. If some­thing moves slight­ly towards you or away from you, you can detect it. We play a lot in robot­ics with infrared, which is a remote sense of heat. Which is great. The brain can take on more—you can tell how hot some­body is, for what it’s worth, from a dis­tance. Things like that.

But x‑ray… I mean, it could be use­ful in the med­ical world, obvi­ous­ly. But I think it’s just some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent. And I’d like to know, would my brain take it on board as we sort of take it visu­al­ly now? You know, we con­vert x‑rays into visu­al pic­tures so humans can under­stand them. But what would it be like to take on board those sig­nals basi­cal­ly? I’d just like to find out as a sci­en­tist. I’d love to have it. Infrared and ultra­son­ics is a lit­tle bit bor­ing. Let’s go for x‑rays.

Mason: Now, all of your work is done safe­ly in a lab-based envi­ron­ment, in a university-based envi­ron­ment, or in a research environment—

Warwick: Your use of that word safe­ly” is inter­est­ing, though.

Mason: Well, my ques­tion is your thoughts on the grinder move­ment, the indi­vid­u­als who are kind of tak­ing a proac­tionary approach to their own body. They’re tak­ing scalpels and a bot­tle of vod­ka and they’re just implant­i­ng things by them­selves to just find out what works, what does­n’t work. And they’re find­ing some com­pli­ca­tions through this self-experimentation. And you know, do you think we’re going to see more or that or do you think that’s just a very dan­ger­ous thing that peo­ple should do and we should wait for indi­vid­u­als like your­self to take the first steps to be able to tell you what is bio-safe and what you want to avoid at all costs?

Warwick: Luke, Luke. I think when you’re going it for the first time, no mat­ter what paper­work you fill in there are still enor­mous dan­gers there. I mean maybe I was a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent that I’ve always worked with doc­tors and sur­geons. So the neur­al implant that I had had neu­ro­sur­geons involved. But for them this was the first time it had hap­pened in a human. And to be hon­est the sur­geon took me to one side about three days before the implant went in and said, Look, if this goes wrong you’re going to lose the use of your hand. So do you still want to do it?”

And it was good that he did, because I’m going to say, Of course I want to do it. We’d sort of got ready for this, so if it goes wrong it goes wrong. That’s the risk you take.” I mean, in a way, I had a good idea of what the risks were because there were med­ical peo— Because there were med­ical peo­ple there, the risks were poten­tial­ly reduced in terms of infec­tion and oth­er issues. 

But I think some of the grinders there are are doing a fan­tas­tic job. And it depends— And this is not say­ing go and do what­ev­er. I don’t want peo­ple to think that. But I think from a sci­en­tif­ic point of view, I keep a close eye on what they’re doing. I mean, the guys in Pittsburgh, Tim Cannon and the oth­ers, they’re doing a fan­tas­tic job. And the way they report things more in their own way. It’s not in a sort of the straight­for­ward aca­d­e­m­ic, sci­en­tif­ic way, as would be nor­mal from a uni­ver­si­ty envi­ron­ment. But they do report on the mate­ri­als that are used, We got these results.” So they report in a sort of a sci­en­tif­ic way. Which is very use­ful for me and the the researchers I work with in terms of what reac­tions have occurred, what the long-term dura­bil­i­ty… Or some­times they put the implant in and have to take it out again pret­ty quick­ly because there’s an issue. And those sort of things we learned from. They report on the issues good or bad, and I think that’s vital­ly impor­tant for what they’re doing. So I think it’s great that there are such peo­ple. We ben­e­fit from it and I think the aca­d­e­m­ic world and sci­en­tists in the med­ical world ben­e­fit from what they’re doing in a dif­fer­ent sort of way. Long term, peo­ple will ben­e­fit. So the num­bers are increas­ing, and why not?

Mason: No, I def­i­nite­ly agree. Amal from Dangerous Things, who implants the chips in peo­ple’s bod­ies, his— I saw a pre­sen­ta­tion from him recent­ly, and the fact that he was so open about the things that could go wrong, about the things you should be aware of before you sort of make these deci­sions, I think it was great that they don’t always just evan­ge­lize the idea of tech­nol­o­gy in the body. They are very hon­est about the pos­si­ble chal­lenges of even things like RFID tags may trav­el around the body. If you have a cer­tain mus­cle tone, then you real­ly don’t want a chip in cer­tain parts of your body. Or if your lifestyle is a cer­tain way. They are good at com­mu­ni­cat­ing those concerns.

Warwick: And I think now of course with things like RFID that it’s spe­cial­ly sealed. It’s designed for implant in the body. The thing that I had—I should’ve brought one with me now—was about one inch long, two and a half cen­time­ters long. It was a glass tube. And we though oh, it’s got to be ster­il­ized. This was with a GP doing it. We’re going to have to ster­il­ize it. So we tried in the lab to ster­il­ize the thing by boil­ing it in water. 

And it explod­ed. And there were bits of chip and elec­tron­ics all over the place. And we thought, Oh bum­mer, if this goes in my arm and does some­thing like that.” So it was actu­al­ly put in an oven to heat up to about 80 degrees and sev­er­al hun­dred degrees, and that was how it was ster­il­ized for my implant. But we always knew that because it was designed more for computers—it was­n’t designed for the human body—if some­one had come along and said, Hey, Kevin, how are you doing,” and pat­ted me on the arm I could’ve had bits of elec­tron­ics just float­ing all—you know, as Amal says. It can move around your body and every­thing. I could’ve had bits of chip all over. It’d have been very dif­fi­cult to get back out again. 

But you take risks like that before the tech­nol­o­gy is improved and you maybe are not ful­ly aware of what the risks are. And what­ev­er forms you fill in for uni­ver­si­ty or com­pa­ny, nobody can actu­al­ly know. Because you’ve not actu­al­ly done that. Nobody’s done that with that piece of tech­nol­o­gy before. So you don’t real­ly know what the risks are.

Mason: I mean, how do you advise say your PhD stu­dents who come to you and sort of go, Look, I’ve got this idea for putting this here, poten­tial­ly.” I mean, what sort of advice do you give peo­ple to make sure that they are aware of the poten­tial dan­gers or chal­lenges or con­cerns with some of these things?

Warwick: Well, it it from his­tor­i­cal grounds so it depends what the implant is. I have three stu­dents now who have had mag­nets implant­ed in their fin­gers. So it’s doing some work ini­tial­ly on the type of mag­net, because now the encap­su­la­tion for the mag­net and the mate­r­i­al that’s used is pret­ty well versed. But we need to do the home­work on that. So make sure you get the right sort of implant that is well-tried and test­ed, first of all. 

And so it goes on. And when you’re con­nect­ing or putting wires around your fin­ger in order to stim­u­late the mag­net and so on, that has being done before, so read up on it, make sure we know the best we can do before going ahea— Here’s me talk­ing about it because it’s just about the oppo­site of what I did myself.

Mason: I mean, did you get advice from the the uni­ver­si­ty insti­tu­tion of Reading. Did they sort of go, Oh no!” Or did you just keep very very quiet?

Warwick: No no no. I did go through all the appro­pri­ate chan­nels. But I think with the BrainGate implant, of course that was a world first. So no human. The only reports that we had of the Utah array, which is the sen­so­ry part of the BrainGate had been used in chick­en sci­at­ic nerves. That was the only aca­d­e­m­ic papers that had been report­ed. So that was what we had to go on, sur­geons as well, before it was fired into my ner­vous system. 

So for the sur­geons it was very much a research project. It was­n’t I could trust them because they knew what they were doing. They did­n’t know what they were doing at all. They were fir­ing the thing in. They were buy­ing lumps of meat from Sainsbury’s in North Oxford and try­ing to fire these things in just to practice. 

And again, just before the oper­a­tion to put the thing in my ner­vous sys­tem, the sur­geon said to me, Well the good news is we’re pret­ty good at actu­al­ly fir­ing the things into the— Well, we think the ner­vous sys­tem now,” the lumps of meat, but the prob­lem is we can’t get them back out again.” And the whole plan was that this would be tak­en out after a few months. So again, Do you want this to go ahead?” 

Yeah, of course I want you to go ahead.” Fortunately, whilst the implant was in they were able to work out how to get them out again with­out break­ing off. Because this array has a hun­dred spikes on it which are very very brit­tle and you have to try and lever it out again, which they were typ­i­cal­ly break­ing about fifty of these spikes off to get the thing out again. And I did­n’t fan­cy hav­ing all these spikes from the array left in my ner­vous sys­tem. So they were for­tu­nate in… Yeah, yeah. It’s part of it.

Mason: Is there any­thing on the com­ing hori­zon that you’re look­ing at going, That’s the next thing I want in my body, in my modalities?”

Warwick: Oh, I mean there’s just one thing. It has to be the brain implant. So it’s pret­ty seri­ous because putting any­thing into the brain you have the dan­gers of bleed­ing. There’s a small per­cent­age. And it is, I believe very very strong­ly, that we will be able to com­mu­ni­cate by send­ing sig­nals from brain to brain. I find it such an excit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty to research, because we don’t know what that means. You’re talk­ing about chang­ing the way the brain is. The pos­si­bil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate in a whole new way. Because brain cells like to com­mu­ni­cate. That’s what brain cells do. And peo­ple go, Why do kids get on Twitter? Why do they have Facebook?” They’ve got brain cells! Brain cells like to do that, of course.

And there­fore what my brain cells will do when they can start to com­mu­ni­cate just direct­ly, not through this old-fashioned thing called speech but direct­ly, I don’t know. And hence, even from a philo­soph­i­cal point of view, it’s tremen­dous­ly excit­ing. You know, do we actu­al­ly think in some strange struc­tured lin­guis­tic type of way. I don’t know that we do, you know. Or do we think in a com­mu­nica­tive sort of way, which is more how I would take things. So it will over­turn a lot of the phi­los­o­phy that we’ve been bas­ing things on for a few hun­dred years now. 

So I’d love to do that. But it’s seri­ous stuff. And still, just where we are now, the sur­geon Amjad Shad, who put the BrainGate into my ner­vous sys­tem. I’m still talk­ing to him, very much talk­ing to him just a few days ago about our next step.

Mason: Thank you to Professor Kevin Warwick for shar­ing his unique vision for the future of humanity. 

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Further Reference

The Cyborg Experiments, by Virtual Futures at Medium