SciTech

First cyborg discusses implications of mixing man and machine

Kevin Warwick poses with a transponder that can be implanted in a human. Warwick already has a similar chip in his arm that allows him to control various appliances in his office, making him the world’s first cyborg. (credit: Courtesy of Kevin Warwick) Kevin Warwick poses with a transponder that can be implanted in a human. Warwick already has a similar chip in his arm that allows him to control various appliances in his office, making him the world’s first cyborg. (credit: Courtesy of Kevin Warwick)

About 50 years ago, scientist Manfred Clynes coined the term “cyborg” in an article he wrote for the journal Astronautics. The anniversary of the birth of this term has provoked a great deal of debate about the future of cyborg technology. Clynes predicted that the term would be needed in a future where humans could use technology to try to surpass the limitations placed upon them by nature.

According to many who share his opinion, cyborgs are the next natural step in human evolution. One of the supporters of a future involving the creation of cyborgs is Kevin Warwick, a professor at the University of Reading in England who gave a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year about his research with cyborgs. Warwick is a man qualified to comment upon the subject, as he can be called the world’s first human cyborg.

Warwick made this transformation in August of 1998, when he implanted a chip into his arm that allowed him to communicate with various objects in his office without effort. He can now open doors, switch on lights, and control the temperature of rooms through the signals sent out by the chip in his arm. The invention of the chip opened up a whole new world of possibilities for human interactions with technology. Up until now, humans have only been able to use technology that interacts with external devices in ways that keep it separate from the human body itself. In the future, Warwick believes that technology will rest inside the human body itself, going as far as to say to CNN that ordinary humans might become “a curiosity for the machines.”

Cyborg humans could indeed change the way we define life. NASA was one of the first organizations to realize how useful chips could be when it implanted chips into the first monkeys sent into space so that the chips could monitor their vital signs. Since then, the possibilities have only been increasing. Yang Cai, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab and the founder of the Instinctive Computing Lab, said, “Professor Warwick’s innovations will affect the scientific community and public [in several fields, including] instinctive computing, security ,and privacy.”

Climate change is another area where cyborg research can end up being useful, as self-adaptation using cyborg technologies could help humans adapt to the changing conditions on Earth. Medicine could also be greatly transformed with the advent of cyborgs, as doctors could use a variety of chips to monitor their patients’ health. Chips implanted into humans can also be a convenient alternative to various cards that most people currently carry around, such as credit cards and driver’s licences. In light of the research that Warwick has conducted, Cai said that Warwick had been “selected [by the Institute of Physics] as one of only seven eminent scientists to illustrate the ethical impact their scientific work can have.” This places Warwick among illustrious names such as Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Oppenheimer.

The ethical impact of Warwick’s work is enormous. Cyborg technologies are challenging humans to rethink what it means to truly be human. However, there is much debate revolving around many facets of the issue. It is tough for many people to decide if humans with machine parts inside them can be considered machines, or just improved versions of humans. The more advanced technology becomes, the more the lines between humans and machines can become blurred. Furthermore, there is the potential for misuse of this technology by governments and corporations, who could potentially track the movements and actions of humans all over the world by simply hacking into the chips implanted into humans. In addition, if devices malfunction while inside human beings, they might cause physical harm, and Cai is sure that Warwick is “seriously concerned about the possibilities of [the] human neural circuit [being] damaged.”

For his part, Warwick is excited about the possibilities that have been opened up to him. As he says on his website www.kevinwarwick.com with optimism, “We don’t have an idea yet, but if this experiment has the possibility to help even one person, it is worth doing just to see what might happen.”