Have you ever felt like your computer knew what you wanted to accomplish—and was determined to stop you from doing so?
Right now, that’s just anthropomorphic thinking—but in the not too distant future, a computer may know what you’re thinking. It might even be doing some thinking—or, at least, data processing—for you, without you having to touch a keyboard, because it will be wired directly to you (or you’ll be wired directly to it; it depends on how you look at it)
The idea of a cyborg—part human, part machine—has been around for a long time, even before Michael Crichton created the fictional character of Steve Austin, who eventually appeared on TV as the Six Million Dollar Man. In the 1990s, its best-known incarnation was probably Star Trek’s Borg. But while science fiction was using the idea in story after story, researchers here and now have been working to make the idea a reality. For instance, electrodes have been implanted in rats’ brains that allow them to receive a treat merely by “thinking” about pressing a lever, instead of actually pressing it, and a stroke patient has had a transmitting device implanted that allowed the patient to move a computer cursor just by thinking about it.
Next summer, a professor at the University of Reading, England, plans to wire himself up in such a way that a computer—if all goes according to plan—will learn how to run parts of his body just like his brain does now.
Professor Kevin Warwick is part of a 20-person international research team working on the connection of humans and computers which includes Professor Brian Andrews, a neural-prosthesis specialist who until recently was with the University of Alberta. Next summer’s operation won’t be the first he’s undergone for the cause: in 1998, he had a silicon chip transponder surgically implanted in his left arm. The transponder communicated via radio with a network of antennas throughout the University of Reading’s Cybernetics Department, which in turn transmitted the signals to a computer programmed to respond to Warwick’s actions. With it in place, the computer would open doors for him, switch on lights when he went into a room, and even greet him by name at the front entrance.
He had the implant for nine days, and by the end of that time had become so accustomed to it that when it was removed (because it was encased in glass tubing, it was considered dangerous to keep it in any longer), he felt like he had lost something important.
Next year’s experiment is far grander. Neurosurgeon Ali Jamous at Stoke Mandeville Hospital will connect a transponder implant directly to the nerve fibers in Warwick’s arm, about halfway between his elbow and his shoulder. Most of the nerves in this area are connected to the hand, and send and received the impulses that control dexterity, feeling and even emotion. In fact, this nerve center carries more information than any other part of the anatomy, aside from the spine and head.
The glass capsule will include a power supply (a copper coil energized by radio waves to produce an electric current) and three miniaturized circuit boards that transmit and receive signals. The goal is to tap into and digitally record the electronic signals that pass through the nerve center.
In the first experiment, the team will attempt to record the signals that are sent when Warwick wiggles his left index finger. Once those signals are recorded, the team will have the computer send that recorded signal back to the arm. Warwick hopes his finger will wriggle just as it did when the signal came from his brain.
Warwick is the first to admit there are unknown risks in all this. Nobody knows what his brain will make of an external signal like that coming into the nervous system. “The worst case is that my brain will say, ‘no, I can’t cope with this’ and switch off,” Warwick says.
If that test works, the team will move on to study pain. They’ll record the signals that result from a pinprick to Warwick’s finger, then play them back. Will they register as pain in the finger? What if they adjust the signals, then play them back. Will they register as pain somewhere else?
There’s a practical side to all this. If a computer can mimic the signals that cause pain, it might also be able to feed signals into the nervous system that counteract pain. Future implants might even provide new senses, not only allow blind or deaf people to see and hear, but let them (or anyone else) to “see” or in infrared or ultraviolet, or hear in subsonic or ultrasonic. Even Superman’s X-ray vision could be possible.
Warwick plans to test this possibility by feeding information from ultrasonic sensors into his own nervous system while blindfolded—to see if he has suddenly developed the senses of a bat.
In an even more interesting experiment, the team will try to record the neural signals generated by Warwick’s brain when he’s feeling happy, sad, angry and scared—if they can figure out how to elicit the emotions they want to record. (Warwick suggests fear ought to be easy: he’s afraid of heights.)
Warwick also plans to have a glass or two of wine, record his body’s reaction, then feed those signals back—to see if it’s possible to create the sense of intoxication without actually imbibing. That could eventually lead to a form of electronic drug—antidepressant therapy without pills, maybe even contraception or vaccines.
If all goes well, Warwick’s wife, Irena, will have an identical transponder inserted into her arm—and they will attempt to communicate, using the transponders, via the Internet. Irena will go to New York while Warwick stays in England. Warwick will wiggle his finger, and the signals will be sent to Irena. If her finger wiggles, too…then a whole new realm of human-machine (and human-human) communication will be upon us. (I’ve though of half a dozen science fiction stories you could base on these experiments just in the course of writing this column!)
Warwick is the first to admit no one really knows what will happen when this experiment is carried out. But he believes all these experiments are worthwhile doing “just to see what might happen.” And if the results aren’t encouraging, well, he says, “at least I tried.”
If the results are encouraging…then the 21st century is going to be even wilder than you think!