Danny O’B on robo-Warwick

A great article on Kevin Warwick from Danny O’Brien via the BBC.

Date: Fri, 02 Aug 2002 12:16:09 +0100
From: “Martin Adamson” (spam-protected)
To: (spam-protected)
Subject: Why I’m not impressed with Professor Cyborg

From the BBC website - www.bbc.co.uk

Thursday, 1 August, 2002, 15:21 GMT 16:21 UK

Why I’m not impressed with Professor Cyborg

By Dave Green Co-editor, NTK.net

Kevin Warwick is the professor who puts microchips in his arm and sees a great future for cyborgs. He’s good at getting in the news, but not everyone is impressed.

You’ve got to hand it to Professor Kevin Warwick.

Whether he’s proclaiming himself “the world’s first cyborg”, or touting his university department of photogenic robot animals, he shows an almost intuitive grasp of an even less well-understood discipline: what makes a good headline.

But, as well as provoking the envy of other academics, Warwick’s media profile has a more serious downside.

Because stories in newspapers aren’t usually structured like proper scientific write-ups – with a hypothesis, apparatus, method, results and conclusion – they make it difficult to objectively assess his work.

Most of the time, the interested reader or viewer is left wondering: What the hell is he doing?

Perhaps to address this shortfall, Kevin has written up his latest electronic-implant experiment in the book I, Cyborg, complete with a terrifying cover-picture of him looking like The Terminator.

He’ll be back

Once again, it does not entirely follow the traditional format (“Apparatus: Surreptitiously obtained neural electrodes intended for use with cats. A local hospital. Some Lego. The credulous world media. My wife.”)

But, to his credit, he does make a brave attempt to address much of the criticism he’s received. And then spoils it all at the end by ranting about the imminent enslavery of humanity again.

First up, the popular allegation that he hasn’t published many scientific papers. The book documents his academic output and lecture tours in almost excruciating detail – along with some more unusual sources of acclaim, including Gillian Anderson (who plays Agent Scully in The X-Files), and noted peer-review journals The Guinness Book Of Records and The Mail On Sunday.

Second, this whole business about being the “world’s first cyborg”. I’ve wondered about this for a while: “cyborg”, short for “cybernetic organism”, is generally used to mean a human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices. Which presumably includes artificial limbs, pacemakers, or those cochlear implants which actually stimulate the auditory nerves of the hearing impaired.

But Kevin says they’re not real cyborgs, because they’re all trying to fix a defect – whereas he is upgrading the human body with new abilities.


Specifically, the new abilities he’s hoping for include: ultrasonic extra-sensory input (so that, bat-like, he can tell how far away things are with his eyes shut), controlling a robot from his nervous system, sending impulses from his nerves to those of his wife (and vice versa) – and, pioneeringly, the power to influence “interactive jewellery”.

And finally, there are some promising indications that, before attempting to wire his nervous system up to his wife’s, he did read up on the field to see if anyone had done anything similar – but it turned out to be full of well-meaning researchers sticking electrodes into monkeys.

To be fair, the build-up to the actual implanting makes for interesting reading, in a do-we-know-what-we’re-doing? and will-we-run-out-of-money? kind of way.

But once the nerve-monitoring electrodes are safely embedded in his arm, Warwick’s instinct for public relations – inevitably – kicks in.

He isn’t content to demonstrate his neural impulses travelling across the internet to control a robot arm on the other side of the office. No, he has to fly to New York – a more impressive photo opportunity.

And, yes, he does manage a form of primitive Morse-code-style nervous-system-to-nervous-system communication with his wife – but it’s a far cry from the transmission of emotions, mental states and sexual arousal which he previously prophesied.


In the classic Conclusion section cop-out sentence, Kevin notes that “Further studies would be necessary” to investigate this area. I suggest he starts with further studies into why he believes that moods are mediated by your arms’ motor neurons in the first place.

Responding to criticisms that he uses “highly emotive language”, Warwick portrays himself as a populist, a communicator, who cares so passionately about science that he has to let the public know about his work by any means he can.

Unfortunately, this is somewhat undermined by the book’s melodramatic warnings that this very experiment could leave him dead, “a mental vegetable”, or with a mild pain in his arm.

Ultimately, it’s up to history to judge whether his experiments are a worthwhile investigation of neural control systems or a succession of neat publicity stunts.

But I can’t imagine that his increasingly baroque justifications – his predicted future where non-cyborg-enhanced humans become second-class citizens

  • are genuinely helping his cause.

If his work is as good as he says it is, he really needs to start letting it speak for itself. And for someone who’s constantly critical of the “enormous errors” in contemporary human communication, maybe Kevin should, every now and again, consider keeping his mouth shut.

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