Kevin Warwick @ the Science Gallery | Cybergenetics

Last Thursday I happily attended a talk by Kevin Warwick, with the catchy title of "Kevin Warwick: My life as a cyborg". He introduced his work by talking to us about experiments he or his students did on themselves, which made for an intensely interesting and entertaining talk, interspersed with video clips of documentaries about his work and robots, as well as the occasional joke dropped in passing like a bomb as British people are wont to do.

The first experiment was about RFID identity and having buildings react to you, for instance by opening doors when they recognise you. At the time of the experiment they were using radio waves. It's cool and all, but I wonder how this would resist to hacking nowadays, when people seem able to reverse engineer just about any air signal. He noted that we actually do use this today, e.g. pets have electronic microchips and in the US they are using them to monitor blood for people with diabetes.

He then showed us experiments his students did to link the brain and the body, e.g. implanting a magnet in their finger that they can hook into and use like a radar to feel how far or close an object is. Another student implanted an infrared device in his finger and can use it to detect heat remotely (they still need some crazy apparatus outside of the body that they hook around the finger etc., but this is still fantastically cool!)

After a brief video of a robot that can use sensory input to react, he moved on to the next theme, robots with a biological brain. Experiments done by hooking rat neurons onto a robotic mechanism and watching it learn and develop over a few weeks and months. This is done by growing brain cultures, and some of these experiments include or are ready to move to using neurons from human brains, which brings up interesting ethical questions. At what point is this culture considered a life? At what point is it wrong to just "turn it off" as you leave the lab in the evening? What about robot rights?

In the context of therapy, there are working implants that are currently being used to improve the life of patients with Parkinson, to prevent tremors and enable them to walk and live more independently. The only problem with these implants at the moment is that they stimulate all the time, making the batteries deplete quickly and requiring extensive surgery to be replaced every 2 years... They're currently working on making these systems intelligent so that they can learn and predict tremors and only stimulate when needed -- the current research is ready to be tested on humans.

The last piece of research was particularly inspiring, on creating a bidirectional interface between the brain and the implants. He hooked a chip into his left arm's nervous system for a few months, and his brain learned to recognise the new signals it was sending (which was not a given, a dangerous experiment!), and vice versa. Many experiments ensued. His wife got one hooked into her arm too and they experienced nervous system to nervous system communication, which sounds quite awesome :) When they removed the implant, rather than rejecting it his body had actually created tissue around it...

The questions at the end of the talk were fairly well-thought up and generated interesting discussions (I shut up because the only question I had in mind was "How does it work for your students at airports?"), on ethics and potential dangers (having some of our senses shut down or dim because the brain favours the new "sense"/signals given by the implant) and when do you call someone a robot or a human (there are people with e.g. "robotic" prosthetic legs after an accident, at what point do you stop calling them "humans", if ever? What when only the brain is human?)