Technology has transformed communication for millennia, from portable papyrus to the boundless network. The next step for human contact might be a giant leap too for most, for we're edging every closer to the precipice of inter-brain communications.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at Coventry University Kevin Warwick has no such concerns and has put his own body on the operating table to advance the underlying bionic research.
His controversial work has earned him the nickname "Captain Cyborg". The name divides opinion due to his grand claims and a fondness for publicity, but his studies have been seminal in the history of transhumanism.
His experiments began with the first phase of the notorious Project Cyborg 1998. Professor Warwick had a silicon chip transponder surgically implanted into his left arm by his GP that could directly interact with the human nervous system and brain.
Professor Warwick remained conscious throughout the procedure, so he could communicate with the surgeons while they hardwired a device the length of a two pence piece into the median nerve of his forearm. He ran the risk of amputation or brain damage if it went wrong.
He emerged unharmed to become an enhanced version of his former self. The RFID (radio frequency identification) technology emitted signals that let him interact with his surroundings as he strolled through his former offices at the Department of Cybernetics of the University of Reading.
"It would identify me to the computer in my building," Professor Warwick recalled during a speech at Tata Consultancy Services' (TCS) annual Innovation Forum.
"As I walked around the computer knew it was me so it switched the lights on, and when I went towards the laboratory the door opened automatically. There was a telephone in the front door; it said 'Hello Professor Warwick.' It was tremendous fun. It was like having a smart card implanted, and it's the same technology that now a lot of people have in their cats and dogs.”
The success was just the start of his bionic transformation.
Making the bionic man
Professor Warwick's work with communications began at 16 when he took a job with British Telecom. Today he helps the bionic trailblazers of tomorrow to pursue their own cyborg dreams.
His students at the University of Reading are doing this in a number of ways. Some had magnets implanted in their fingers by a tattoo artist known as Doctor Evil. The pseudonym raised a few eyebrows when listed on the ethical approval form.
The implants interact with ultrasonic sensors on a baseball cap. They feed a current down a coil of wire that changes when an object comes closer, causing the magnet in the finger to increasingly vibrate. The effect adds a tangible sense to the perception of distance that blind people could use as a mobility tool in place of a cane.
Another student replaced the ultrasonics with infrared sensors that made the vibrations increase as an object gets hotter.
Professor Warwick has also conducted experiments with biological brains. Researchers at Reading University grew around 300,000 rat brain cells in a laboratory that connected between each other and communicate with electrical pulses.
The functioning brain then wirelessly helped a robot body learn to turn when approaching a wall.
"It has typically 150,000 brain cells, so more than slugs and snails, but it's not the 100 billion brain cells that most humans are reporting to have," says Professor Warwick.
They've also been experimenting with using electrode implants to give people with Parkinson’s disease more movement. The electrodes can apply a stimulating current through the body, and feed the electrical activity from the patient's brain into an AI system that learns to recognise when tremors are coming before they materialise.
The therapeutic promise is enormous, but Professor Warwick believes the benefits extend to the whole of humanity.
“The frequency spectrum of the human senses is very limited, and the possibility of extending that in some ways is enormous with technology,” he says.
"We’re using such old technology. We have in our brain highly complex signals to do with emotions and feelings, electrochemical signals, and if we want to communicate those to somebody else, what do we do? We convert them to mechanical signals. The pressure wave will move, and then the signals travel and somebody else's ears convert the signals back from mechanical pressure wave into electro-chemical signals.
"And of course, even if you’ve been married for 20 and 30 years…what are you talking about? Why can't we, like computers do, just send signals from brain to brain and start communicating in a much more effective way?"
Professor Warwick once again looked to his own body as the vehicle to answer his question.
The cyborg takes shape
Phase two of Project Cyborg commenced in 2002. The objective was to send signals between Professor Warwick's nervous system and a computer.
At Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary, a team of surgeons inserted a one hundred electrode array known as a BrainGate into the median nerve fibres of his left arm.
The procedure had previously only been tested on chickens, and the outcome for a human subject was far from certain. Could he lose his arm, or even worse his mind?
He was plugged into a computer which monitored the nerve signals from his brain to his arms, receiving and transmitting them as radio waves.
Professor Warwick’s mental state remained unchanged, at least as far as they could see.
Physically he gained new powers that resembled telepathy. The neural interface enabled the evolving professor to turn on lights and control a wheelchair and a robotic hand across the Atlantic. It could also create artificial sensations by stimulating individual electrodes in the array.
And with that Kevin Warwick became the world’s first cyborg: part man and part machine.
The same BrainGate implant has since been used to help quadriplegics move their limbs, but Professor Warwick insists: "I was the first human."
The success of the experiments convinced him that implant-enchanced interaction with another human was a logical next step. To test is he would need a cyborg partner to work beside him. He found one close to home when his wife Irena volunteered.
The bionic couple
The couple's electrode-enhanced communications began innocently enough, with a necklace worn by Irena electronically linked to her husband's nervous system. The colour changed from blue when the professor became excited.
They became more advanced when Irena added an implant of her own. A less complex device was inserted into her arm to connect their nervous systems, and study how emotional signals could be transmitted from one person to another. Like her husband, Irena chose to remain conscious throughout the painful procedure.
The couple linked their nervous system to send each other signals from their brains. When someone grasped Irena's hand, her husband's brain received a pulse from the implant in his arm.
"The experiment with my wife Irena for me was the most important bit that we did," says Professor Warwick. "I know it was only in a fairly simplistic way, but for me, that was the biggest thing.
"I think she was skeptical of the results when I was saying we'll be able to send signals from nervous systems, so she was pushing to be involved. And I'm glad she did because one other aspect to it is when you send signals between nervous systems it is very intimate. You're really getting inside the body as it were."
Certain neural signals can be classified by monitoring the nervous systems and determine if a person is getting stressed, angry, or excited. The degree of certainty decreases when physical emotions are replaced by abstract ones that one can feel but not easily define.
The future cyborg
"Like computers do, why can't we just send signals from brain-to-brain, and start communicating in a much more effective way?" Professor Warwick asks. "In terms of feelings and emotions and thoughts and images, it's so much richer.
"We've evolved as humans to have our brains and our body in the same place but with the technology we have now that doesn’t have to be the case at all. Your brain can be in one place and your body can be wherever you want, as long as it’s networked in, connected together."
As the technical possibilities grow the issues become more complex. The exchange of signals will need to be two-way and may require separate implants for the motor and sensory functions.
"The question at the moment we’re facing can we get motor neurons to actually receive signals as well," says Professor Warwick. "Can we get them to be bidirectional? That's a big ask. We don't know."
He feels the costs are less prohibitive than the dangers of an unnecessary operation, and the dystopian fears of a future of cybernetically enhanced humans. Transhumanism has become a common term in the intervening years, although not yet a common practice.
"How would one then regard somebody who's still just communicating like humans do. It would be stupid noises and it would be so pathetic in comparison that you wouldn't be bothered with things like that. Would it create the digital divide people have spoken of? This really has a possibility of creating something like that.
"If I could just send signals brain-to-brain and communicate that way, maybe it gets rid of these languages that we have because of the mechanical method we are using at the moment.
Today the 63-year-old still is Warwick is in "serious talks" over another cyborg experiment. His hope remains that more breakthroughs in communication will come in his near future.
"The next step will be doing that brain-to-brain," he says. "It will be two implants and linking two brains together. One of which, I hope, will be mine."
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