Slaves of the machines

December 8, 2000

Earlier this year, sitting on a platform at the Edinburgh Book Festival between the US feminist Andrea Dworkin and Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, I felt myself starting to sweat. The debate between the two was hotting up. Dworkin had lobbed a "mad scientist" remark in Warwick's direction - galvanised by the professor's reference to an experiment he hopes to pull off next year. Was the Edinburgh event - a discussion to promote Predictions, a THES book to which both had contributed - about to turn into a slanging match? I wondered. How much common ground can there be between a radical feminist and a scientist who believes that computers are more intelligent than men and women?

I need not have worried. Instead of rising to Dworkin's bait, Warwick calmly described the planned experiment. A surgeon has been enlisted to insert a silicon-chip transponder into his arm and that of his wife Irena. Her neural signals will be recorded, via the chip, onto a computer and then replayed into her husband's nervous system. The aim? Warwick wants to experience Irena's emotions.

And the point of this interchange? Again, Warwick had an answer off pat. At Emory University in Atlanta, a similar silicon device, inserted into the brain of a stroke patient, has enabled the patient's neural signals to be transmitted to a computer, allowing the patient to move a cursor on a computer screen simply by thinking about it. The beneficiaries of such research are the physically disabled.

The Edinburgh audience was convinced. The debate settled into a good-natured exchange.

But Warwick has found it more difficult to persuade people of the sanity of another of his big ideas - that computers will soon take over the world. It is a notion touched on in QI: The Quest for Intelligence , which argues that although people have tried for centuries to clarify intelligence, there is still no commonly accepted definition or measure.

Yet it is intelligence, according to Warwick, that has enabled us to dominate other species. With computer capabilities evolving faster than human brainpower, machine intelligence will soon outstrip us and we will become its slaves. Or, as Warwick puts it: "The sword of life is intelligence. As we have lived by the sword with other creatures, so we will die by the sword in the hands of robots." Our only hope is to turn ourselves into cyborgs - combining in our bodies the capabilities of both computers and human brains (back to that silicon-chip experiment).

Put so baldly it sounds supremely silly - a grotesque sci-fi fantasy. But en route Warwick makes a lot of sense. With IQ testing threatening to make a comeback as a glorified university admissions procedure, his demolition of such tests as little more than culturally conditioned quizzes is timely. And if IQ tests are our preferred measure of intelligence, what is the obvious conclusion to draw if a computer attains a higher IQ score than a Mensa member?

Warwick prefers to define intelligence as multi-dimensional and subjective -"intelligence considered not in terms of a single number but as a complex multi-dimensional facility". And his own theory for measuring this capacity has a decidedly postmodern feel to it, allowing individuals to tailor his "hypersphere" test to personal specifications.

He ventures into the nature/nurture debate - coming down in favour of intelligence being largely genetic - but shies away from the more controversial 80:20 genes:environment ratio in favour of a 60:40 split.

And there is an entertaining chapter titled "How to improve your IQ test results", which records the results of research on Reading University students. Warwick shows that if you want to boost IQ test scores, watching Richard and Judy before you sit the book's exam is a safer bet than reading or struggling over The Times crossword.

Warwick presents himself as a plain-speaking, commonsensical type; the text is littered with phrases such as "absolute rubbish" and "plainly daft". He seems to delight in taking pot-shots at well-known academics such as Oxford mathematician Sir Roger Penrose or MIT psychologist Steven Pinker. But even though his observations about our theories of intelligence are thought-provoking and lucid, the book is undercut by a sense that Warwick has something to prove - a chip on his shoulder, perhaps, as well as one in his arm.

Unlike most British professors of science, Warwick's route to academe was a vocational one. He left school at 16 and joined British Telecom, studying in his spare time for A levels in maths and physics and completing a degree in electrical engineering as a mature student. He has little time for the establishment or for "academic" as opposed to practical science. Perhaps that is why he pushes his argument to sensational extremes and hypes up his claims - a tendency that has done him no favours among more cautious academic colleagues. "It has long been widely accepted that those people who are knowledgeable about the arts, classical music and literature are more intelligent than those who are not," he writes. And he poses a typically tongue-in-cheek question early on in the book: which university is the odd one out - Cambridge, Oxford, Newcastle, Reading? (Answer, Cambridge - because Warwick has not taught there.) Not all Warwick's scientific colleagues would agree with all his pronouncements - but he has certainly done a lot to explain science to the public. From December 14 until the end of the month he will deliver the Royal Institution's Christmas lectures for children, accompanied by his pet robots, the Seven Dwarfs and Hissing Syd. If more professors were like Kevin, universities would be a lot more fun.

Sian Griffiths is editor of Predictions: Thirty Great Minds on the Future (1999), and deputy supplements editor, The Sunday Times .

QI: The Quest for Intelligence

Author - Kevin Warwick
ISBN - 0 749 92081 5
Publisher - Piatkus
Price - £16.99
Pages - 231

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