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Bret M Funk

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Domo Arigato, Dr. Roboto
by Bret M Funk   

Last edited: Saturday, December 06, 2003
Posted: Tuesday, October 07, 2003

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A satirical look at one of the scientific community's most visual figures, cyberneticist and artificial intelligence researcher Dr. Kevin Warwick, the self-proclaimed 'first human cyborg.'
First published in The Illuminata in August 2003.

Domo Arigato, Dr. Roboto
By Bret Funk


Scientific discoveries, many of great significance, are made daily. Forward thinking men and women around the world analyze the results from a near-infinite number of experiments to better understand our universe, improve upon current technology, and formulate new ideas and even better technologies. Yet these hard-working visionaries often go unpraised and unnoticed in today’s society. As a rule (really it’s more of a guideline) these men and women aren’t supermodels, and their every-man appearance earns them little face time with the media. Their ideas are too complex, their explanations too verbose, and their writing far too dull and jargon-filled to interest the average person, who remains happier when benefiting from scientific advancement without understanding it.

Thankfully, a few bold men and women are fighting lay-person apathy and an entrenched elitist oligarchy by bringing mass appeal and a certain amount of showmanship to science. Topping this list is Professor Kevin Warwick of the University of Reading (in the United Kingdom), a pioneer in cybernetic research and artificial intelligence. Dr. Warwick is a celebrated teacher and a prodigious writer, having published over three hundred papers and a series of books on cybernetics (including In the Mind of the Machines and I, Cyborg). But Warwick is perhaps best known for challenging outdated and overly-cautious scientific conventions, conventions like animal trials (Warwick claims to have never conducted an experiment on an animal—we assume he means other than human) and the stigma against self-experimentation.

That’s right, this modern day Jekyll and Hyde has decided to put his money where his mouth is (or rather, where his arm is). In 1998, he underwent surgery to have a transponder implanted in his arm, proclaiming himself ‘the world’s first cyborg’. The transponder allowed him to ‘communicate’ with his office: doors opened at his approach, disembodied computerized voices welcomed him home, and his e-mail and favorite web pages loaded up without his having to say a word. Though the chip was removed after only nine days (if left in longer, Warwick noted that his body would have started to accept it, making its removal more difficult), Warwick felt the loss of his robotic implant acutely. “I’m feeling more at one with the computer. It’s as though part of me is missing when I’m not in the building. In my house, I have to open doors and turn on lights. I don’t feel lonely, but I don’t feel complete.”

The implications of this research should be obvious, and for many people (especially in the U.S.) a welcome relief. To be freed of the burdens of opening doors, selecting television channels, and adjusting thermostats is a milestone in our quest for complete and utter laziness, and with the decline of the community and breakdown of the traditional family, more and more Americans yearn for the day when their house will ask after their health and compliment them on their new hairstyle. (Of course, this advantage will quickly be overshadowed by most houses’ continuous complaining that they don’t receive enough attention.)

Despite making what some might consider the most significant cybernetic breakthrough of the millennium, Warwick was far from finished. In March of 2002, Warwick had a larger array of electrodes implanted into his left arm. This array allows the good doctor to communicate with a variety of robotic components, including an electric wheelchair and a mechanized hand. Moreover, the connection works two ways: Warwick can feel impulses sent via radio signals and hypothesizes that his team of scientists might be able to perform complex arm movements without his even being aware of it.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that Warwick’s wife has allowed a similar (though less sophisticated) implant to be placed in her arm. With it, the couple hopes to transmit basic physiological signals (i.e. pleasure or pain.). Though excited by the prospect, Warwick does have some reservations: “If she [his wife] starts looking at a young guy walking down the street and she starts to get all excited, will I feel what the hell she is up to or will I feel excited too in a strange way?” Mildly homophobic worries aside, Warwick is supportive of his new technology and has suggested that, with further refinement, it could be used to transmit more complex human sensations, like emotions or thoughts. However, most proponents of this technology seem fixated on the ability to share pleasure, and much speculation has been given to its potential effects on the pornography and prostitution industries.

Warwick is more than a showpiece, though; he has opinions and he isn’t afraid of sharing them, not even when they go against the consensus of his colleagues. Several of his more insightful opinions follow:

On intelligence: “What is it that puts humans in the relatively dominant position we are in on Earth? I believe it is our intelligence, coupled with the power to do something about it. So if something more intelligent and more powerful comes along, the logic is that it will, most likely, be in the driving seat.”

On applying his research to business: “The company would know when [the employees] come into the building and when they leave the building. They would know when employees went to the toilet and how long they stayed. If you did get the sack, you would have to have your implant taken out. It might make people even less keen to get sacked, knowing it would mean surgery.”

On applying his research to sex offenders: “If that person [the sex offender] tries to go into a school, bells would ring, doors would shut, and so forth. You could have pedophile-free zones.”

On his heritage: “I was born human. But this was an accident of fate - a condition merely of time and place. I believe it’s something we have the power to change..”

On his critics: “Putting myself out on a limb probably makes a few people jealous more than anything else. If our work can help someone who is blind have some extra sense and increased ability to move around then what the hell about some media people!”

On the future of our species: “I think humanity is, at the moment, obsolescent. It’s on its way out. Either we can really suffer at the hands of machines more intelligent than we are, or we can look to upgrade humans and make ourselves more intelligent.”

In separate interviews, Warwick has made other bold statements, such as his claims that television can improve test grades, that cyberdrugs will soon be available free via the Internet, that humans may soon be remote-controlled, and that self-aware machines may become a reality in less than a decade.

Like all visionary thinkers, Warwick is not without criticism. Numerous scientists in cybernetics and artificial intelligence have disagreed with his statements on the future of the fields (and on the fate of humanity) and have raised cautious eyebrows at the mention of his ground-breaking experimentation. Critics have been quick to point out that Warwick was not, in fact, the first cyborg: anyone with a pacemaker qualifies, making a good number of people over the age of fifty-five pioneers in the realm of man-machine symbiosis. Others point out that Warwick’s first implant was little more than a modified animal transceiver, similar to the kind used to track animal migrations, and was far from the leap in cybernetic research that Warwick claimed it to be. Others have brought his publication record into question: comprehensive searches have turned up less than fifty published academic papers (most of which were not about cybernetics), a bit short of the three hundred claimed. He has been lambasted for his numerous failures, accused of embellishing the implications of his research, and chastised because a number of his studies disregarded something called the “scientific method” and could not stand up to cursory statistical examination. There was even a move to have him removed from the British Association’s list of competent spokespeople on the grounds that his comments were having a negative impact on the serious study of artificial intelligence.

Warwick has been called a media hound and ‘tower-jumper’ because of his controversial experiments and unique, doomsayer perspective on the future of cybernetics. Some claim that his ‘experiments’ are geared more toward selling books than toward legitimate scientific research, and his antics have spawned at least two websites that devote a good amount of time to tracking his movements and reporting his latest ‘breakthroughs’. Like all revolutionary thinkers (Galileo, anyone?) he is criticized for swimming against the tide and for attempting to make science more accessible to the masses.

One can only wonder if, twenty years from now, when the sentient machines of the future are using remote-controlled humans to implement their plan of world domination, and the rest of us are caught with our pants down (pun intended) because of our fascination with trans-atlantic, telepathic cybersex, will Warwick’s critics have the chutzpah to admit that they were wrong?

I don’t think so.

Research for this article was conducted at the following websites: kevinwarwick.com, cnn.com, guardian.co.uk, theregister.co.uk, wired.com, and ABCnews.com

Web Site: The Illuminata - Tyrannosaurus Press' free online SF newsletter


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Reviewed by Elizabeth Taylor (Reader) 10/8/2003
Excellent article. Enjoyed reading.
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