Kevin Warwick – the first cyborg

Who is he?

Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, England, where he carries out research in artificial intelligence, robotics and biomedical engineering.

His most important contribution to date has been in the study of neural-electronic interfaces. In March 2002, Warwick underwent voluntary surgery to have an electrode array implanted into the median nerve fibres of his left arm. The array, combined with an external gauntlet worn around the wrist, interacted with the nerve signals passed down Warwick’s arm to both receive and deliver neural information.

The objective of the surgery was to “assess the usefulness, compatibility, and long-term operability of a micro-electrode array into the median nerve of the left arm… including perception of feedback stimulation and operation of an instrumented prosthetic hand”.

To this end, Warwick and his team conducted a series of successful experiments, including the control by thought alone of a robotic hand prosthesis and an electric wheelchair, and the perception of incoming pressure, friction and proximity stimuli. This latter was particularly astounding as it utilised a custom-made sonar unit embedded in Warwick’s wrist gauntlet that enabled him to perceive how far an object was from his hand via a sense not otherwise possessed by human beings.

The team’s paper on these experiments can be viewed here.

What do we think?

The synergy between humankind and technology is as old as we are, is the defining characteristic of our species. It started when our distant ancestors first used animal bones as weapons, gained evermore relevance through the agricultural, industrial and digital revolutions and continues today in the way we work, eat, communicate and travel.

Despite Warwick’s experimental implant having to be removed after 3 months due to mechanical fatigue of its componentry, his work represents the next big step forward in our close reliance on, and immeasurable benefits from, our technology. 40 years ago, primitive computers filled entire buildings and performed simple mathematical equations; today we carry them around in our pockets, where they (and we) remain connected to the world at all times, allowing us to communicate, work and socialise. The possibilities implicit in Warwick’s pioneering cybernetics research are limitless:

  • Robotic prostheses that will permit the blind to see and the paralysed to walk.
  • Cybernetic senses that will allow us to see in infra-red, feel sonar pulses and detect electrical frequencies.
  • Medical analysis tools the size of blood cells.
  • Direct mind-to-mind communication and empathy.
  • Enhanced robotic tools that will allow soldiers to stay at home, miners to dig from the surface and astronauts to visit the deep reaches of our galaxy.

Welcome to a brave new world.

About Warwick Mihaly

Warwick Mihaly is a principal architect of Mihaly Slocombe, teaches design and construction, and writes.
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4 Responses to Kevin Warwick – the first cyborg

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