The latest in silicon implants

December 4, 1998

Kevin Warwick is experimenting with new relationships between man and machines. Harriet Swain visited the man with a chip in his arm

You never know," says Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University, putting down the telephone receiver and shaking his head. "You just never know." He explains: recently a man came to see him - "normal-looking, well-dressed, middle-class" - and started talking quite reasonably to him about his work. But gradually he began mentioning aliens and forms of communication that seemed, well, unlikely.

Now, someone has just called him about research on the brain, which also sounds a bit far-fetched. The problem is, Warwick may be 99 per cent certain that someone is deluded, but there remains that 1 per cent chance they might be right. So he has to listen.

Warwick's work may itself be thought a little far-fetched. It focuses on breaking down barriers, and not just theoretical ones, between man and machines. In August, he had a silicon chip implanted in his arm for nine days, programmed to switch on his computer and open doors as he passed sensors in his department building. The chip, housed in a 23mm-long glass cylinder, was inserted under general anaesthetic, and while it was in Warwick's body it posed a constant health risk. Attempts to sterilise it proved unsatisfactory; he tried using boiling water but he chip exploded; acid did not work. Eventually, he heated it in an oven and dosed himself with antibiotics.

His next project is to insert one chip in his arm and another in his wife, Irena. The chip in his arm, alerted by electrical impulses carried along Warwick's nerve endings, will send signals to a computer which, in turn, will send them on to his wife's chip.

For Warwick wants to look at ways of making connections between the human brain and computers. First he wants to harness human thought to control computers - to make a computer able to read his mind. This particular sci-fi dream actually came true earlier this month at Emory University in Atlanta, when scientists placed electrodes covered in nerve cells inside a disabled patient's brain. The idea is that when the patient thinks about moving a particular part of the body, his brain transmits electrical signals to the electrodes. These signals are, in turn, picked up by receivers outside the patient's body that control a cursor on a computer. Warwick also wants to explore the reverse process and develop computers that are able to download information into a human brain. "It is telepathy, but for real," he explains happily.

Warwick is not the only person to explore these kinds of ideas. At Imperial College, London, Igor Aleksander has developed Magnus, a computer program that he claims shows evidence of consciousness, even of being able to dream. Made of millions of neurons, imitating the neural network systems of the brain, Magnus has shown, says Aleksander, that it can feel the quality of things such as "redness", a concept called "qualia".

Warwick's wife, who has kept up with all these developments, volunteered to be the other recipient of a computer chip, connected to one implanted in her husband. She took the view "that if people were going to be able to start to read other people's thoughts she wanted to be the first to read mine". But it is likely to take a couple of years before the experiment is put into action. "All the individual bits of technology are there," Warwick says. "All we have to do is put bits together that were there already."

Warwick enjoyed having a chip in his body. "I didn't feel, as I do now, that there is the computer and here is me," he says. "I felt a much stronger link, as if we were coupled together in the same way as Siamese twins - there was a link there but we were two separate beings." When it was taken out, he says, he felt he was losing a friend.

In his book, March of the Machines, Warwick argues that machines will soon be better than humans at everything and will then take over the world. He suggests that in many ways they already have. People may think it is possible simply to switch off a machine if it gets out of hand, but Warwick says this is no longer true: imagine switching off the internet or computers that run the stock market.

Soon, he says, machines will become capable of learning things for themselves - he has already created in his laboratory machines capable of finding an electricity socket and plugging themselves in to recharge - and then we will be in trouble. "The human race," he writes, "will see its domination come to an end. We will have created a being that will displace us. The human race will be as outmoded as the dinosaurs."

Endlessly affable, sprawled in a study full of pictures of his two children and objects with "Kevin's" written on them, Warwick clearly loves the publicity these ideas have brought him, loves being interviewed. And he insists on conducting a guided tour of his department, taking with him the computer chip that once resided in his arm and is now mounted on a piece of card. Throughout the tour, doors unexpectedly open, lights turn on and buildings declare: "Hello Kevin."

Before entering the main workshop, where several silent youths in specs are fiddling with bits of Lego, he demonstrates a machine that plays with yo-yos and another able to throw balls up in the air and catch them Tiny robots, picking up the signals of something moving, nip at our heels, while in the corner, a large mechanical cat waits to pounce.

Warwick has been interested in this kind of thing since his childhood in Coventry, "although I was also interested in football and girls and things boys are usually interested in," he says. He would read H. G. Wells and Michael Crichton - "not fantasy science fiction but sensible science fiction" - and was curious about how things worked.

His father, a Welsh school teacher, could barely wire a plug but he influenced Kevin in quite a different way. He suffered from acute agoraphobia, which was eventually treated with surgery. The operation cured the agoraphobia but gave him a terrible temper. From his father's illness, Warwick learned the extent to which thoughts could control the body. The aftermath of the operation taught him about the potential and pitfalls of meddling with the brain. "I could see that a few snips here and there could completely change someone's personality," he says.

Warwick left school at 16 and joined British Telecom as an apprentice, staying for about six years. There he was given all sorts of reasons why mobile phones and fibre optics would never be a reality - "I learned you never know what's around the corner" - and he discovered the importance of computer networks and problem-solving. The trouble with many academics, he says, is that they have no experience of sorting out genuine problems in practice.

In coffee breaks and lunch hours he studied for A levels in maths and physics, gaining a place at Aston University to study electrical engineering aged 22. After finishing his degree he went to Imperial, where he took a PhD in computing, moving on to Newcastle, where he became more interested in robotics, and then to Oxford, where he taught engineering at Somerville.

He gained his present post at Reading, "a dream come true", aged just 32 after a year at the University of Warwick. "I have never been an academic," he says. He liked Aston because it was a practical university and a practical course. He disliked school because it was too much about getting through exams, learning things he had been told were right and regurgitating them. He does not like believing what people tell him unless he has tried it out for himself. Hence the computer chip in the arm, the Lego toys, the plan to try reading his wife's mind or allowing her to read his and all the other schemes he has tried out over the years.

Perhaps the most elaborate involved Rogerr, Reading's Only Genuine Endurance Running Robot, a waist-high metal dome on wheels programmed to follow Warwick, a keen runner, on a half-marathon around Bracknell with 1,000 other human competitors. Rogerr was to keep within a constant distance of infrared sensors emitted from a pack around Warwick's waist as he jogged.

The British media were out in force, and Japanese television cameras were standing by to capture the event. But it all ended in disaster. As the whistle went, Rogerr set off in the opposite direction and fell over a kerb. It turned out that the robot had been fatally confused by infrared rays from the sun.

Reactivating paralysed legs, page 22

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