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.

From my sketchbook: Damascus


Just outside the entry to the Umayyad Mosque in old town Damascus. As the bells for noon prayer sound out across the city, the streets quickly empty, leaving a convoluted tapestry of urban fabric. Power lines, phone lines and washing lines are strung out across the street; courageous vines crawl up the cracks between buildings; shadows are sharp, unsullied by the softening effect of clouds; brightly coloured souvenirs clash with the subdued desert shades of the walls.

SIGGRAPH animated shorts

What is it?

A session of internationally-sourced digitally animated short films that screened earlier this evening as part of the 2011 Melbourne International Animation Festival. The festival runs until this coming Sunday at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

What did we think?

Despite suffering from the mixed quality that often ails short film groupings, the SIGGRAPH highlights nevertheless offers an interesting selection of films that demonstrate the extraordinary diversity possible within the still-emerging artform of digital animation. Some real gems stand out in the mix, combining neat stories with sublime visual aesthetics. The session was touted as an “annual wrap-up of hi-end, hi-concept digital splendours” and does not fail to deliver.

Our favourites include:

Nuit Blanche, by Arev Manoukian, for draping the skeleton of a simple story with an immaculate film noir musculature. The animation is in most parts hyper-real, somehow more substantial than the everyday – we can forgive the film for dedicating most of its 4 minutes and 39 seconds to the slow motion capture of water splashing, wine spilling and glass shattering because it does them so well. Watch the film here.

The Sandpit, by Sam O’Hare, does not in fact use digital animation, rather 35,000 tilt-shift photographs of New York taken across five days of continuous shooting. The crisp light, awkward movement and extreme depth of field imbue the film with the sense that the city has been miniaturised – a surreal impression to have of one of the world’s most vibrant and densely populated urban environments. Click here to watch the film, with superb musical score composed by Human.

Loom, by Ilja Brunck, Jan Bitzer and Csaba Letay, is an intensely choreographed piece that tracks “a successful catch”. Part nature-study and part techno thriller, the entire film is composed of extreme close-ups that successfully thrust the audience into the heart of the action. The jarring soundtrack and washed-out colours further disassociate the spider’s web from any real sense of place – the catch is a visceral act that obeys purely biological imperatives. Watch the film here.

Finally, Verena Fels’ Mobile presents a lighthearted and energetic film about a collection of farm animals suspended from a child’s mobile. The story is more than a little reminiscent of Pixar’s Birds, however Fels carves her own playful niche, imbuing each of her soft toy animals with personality and verve. Unfortunately, the film is not available online, however a trailer is viewable here.

The Melbourne International Animation Festival may not be as well-patronised as its big brother, the Melbourne International Film Festival (kicking off next month), but we are glad we put in the effort on a cold winter’s night to check it out. It offers rare insight into today’s cutting edge animation and, we are certain, tomorrow’s mainstream cinema.

Arabic patterning

Cordoba Mezquita, Spain. Circa late-700s.

What is it?

Due to its proscription against artistic representations of people and animals, Islam has long turned to calligraphy, botany and abstract patterns for architectural ornamentation. Over the centuries, this narrow artistic field has seen the development of great variety and depth. Arabic calligraphy flows across walls in myriad scripts; vines, flowers and fruit reflect regional variation; and patterning is rarely replicated in either structure or detail. All exhibit a fascinating combination of the simple and the complex: simple letters, species and geometries are enriched by complexly interwoven linework to create forms that are simultaneously organic and austere.

What do we think?

The intricate detail contained within an Arabic pattern provides an evocative insight into the intentions of its makers. Taken as a whole, it is infinitely complex, referring to nature and the Divine – it is breathtaking and unknowable. At the same time, it is possible to discern repetition within the pattern, rendering it understandable, if only at some deep level, and humane. That it is derived from pure mathematical shapes yet crafted from familiar materials further accentuates this fascinating duality.

Applied to the surfaces of buildings, the patterning satisfies a key requirement for great architecture we recall from our early studies. According to Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s great 20th Century modernist architect, architecture must capture the eye from a distance with its massing, but must then reveal further detail upon approach: from 100m away, we see the volume and planes of the building; from 20m we see materials and openings; from 5m away we see texture and patterning. Like a blooming flower (or an onion), great architecture unfolds as we draw closer, revealing more of its nature with every step. It is a process of storytelling, permitting a haptic appreciation of space and surface.

The patterns we have seen in ancient mosques, palaces and museums alongside contemporary office towers and airports are magnificently conceived and delicately crafted. The following photos are an exhibition of patterns discovered during our recent travels through Malaysia, Syria, Spain and Morocco.

Masjid Negara (National Mosque) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Circa 1963.

Post Office tower in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Circa 1980s.

Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria. Circa late-600s.

Ancient citadel in Palmyra, Syria. Circa 300s.

Palace La Bahia in Marrakech, Morocco. Circa late-1800s.

Marrakech-Menara Airport, Morocco. Circa 2008.

La Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Circa mid-1300s.

The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell

What is it?

A play written by Reg Cribb and directed by Lucy Freeman that showed up until yesterday at Fortyfive Downstairs. Its 3 performers, John Wood, Samuel Johnson and Marcella Russo, all shine in a production that is eerily familiar, quintessentially Australian and ultimately more than a little disturbing.

Wood plays Daniel Gartrell, a celebrated bush poet who has retired to the suburbs, a recluse who has neither ventured outside nor put pen to paper for 15 years. His only contact with the world is his daughter, Sarah (played by Russo), whose compunction to care for the broken keeps her doting on him but similarly isolated and lonely. Johnson is Craig Castevich, a young actor who barges into their lives after landing his first big role in a feature film – he is to play Gartrell and has arranged to spend 2 weeks with him to understand the man behind the mystery.

What did we think?

Not being regular theatre-goers, we discovered a peculiarity to the theatre experience not encountered in either cinema or literature. Sitting somewhere between a film and a novel, a play furnishes its audience with less visual information than the former but more than the latter. We are encouraged to use our imagination, but are directed in the way we do so. As such, the suspension of disbelief, the immersion of ourselves into the narrative of the play, took a little longer than we had anticipated.

Once in however, we were richly rewarded. The play paints a picture of the Australian bush in tones of contradicting duality, managing simultaneously to romanticise and criticise it. The bush of Gartrell’s childhood was raw and beautiful as well as ugly and racist, all traits that somehow find their way into the cramped confines of the suburbia of his twilight years. The set, composed almost entirely of differently-shaped and coloured doors, suggests that each of the characters are searching for something but are trapped in an extended moment of indecision.

Wood, Johnson and Russo have a clear chemistry that translates well on stage. While the roles of each character appear well defined and knowable – bitter old man, lonely daughter and innocent actor – the story leads us far away from these archetypes into disquieting terrain. None finish off where they started, leaving the audience to ponder the powerful currents that run beneath the surface of everyday life and threaten at any moment to throw all we know into irrevocable disarray. The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell starts slowly but builds to an unrestrained crescendo that shocked us and set our thoughts reeling.

To polylogue or not to polylogue

Monologue (n): One person speaking to another person or to many.
Dialogue (n): Two people speaking to one another.
Polylogue (n): One person speaking to many {use – Facebook, Twitter, blogging}.

Fact: 9 out of 10 people believe their thoughts, ideas and opinions are interesting to others – this is one of the fundamental truths that encourages speech. A related impulse is the desire to learn new things, to listen. In combination, the sympathetic desires to speak and to listen facilitate conversation, and by extension, civilisation.

A dialogue incorporates both speaking and listening in a reciprocal relationship that enriches both its participants. Each individual increases his understanding of the other; is in turn understood more deeply; gains the satisfaction of being heard; has his ideas improved upon through analysis; feels the pleasure of being involved in something bigger than himself. The dialogue exists at the intersection of a deeply-engrained web of basic human urges: it is intrinsic to our existence.

The polylogue is much less than the dialogue in many ways – it strips away much of the latter’s enriching characteristics and responds directly to the impulse to speak, to be heard. In this, the polylogue offers something more, something new: the small voice projected large.

Whilst the average civilian has historically had scant opportunity to exploit this base impulse (postcards home and letters to the editor being the rare exceptions), this has all changed with the advent of new online media. Facebook, Twitter and blogging have dispensed with the barriers that traditionally inhibit the polylogger – we carry our smartphones with us everywhere we go and are connected to the internet every minute. The next tweet is just a few easy keystrokes away. In so doing, new media present the ideal environment for the polylogue to blossom.

At its essence, the polylogue may be little more than an impoverished version of the dialogue, a thinned down facsimile of a rich conversational soup. But it pampers its participants, strokes their egos by projecting their identities to the world, loud and clear. It will survive and thrive because it addresses, in fleeting sound bites, the deeply coded needs of 9 out of 10 people.