Snippets From SXSW Interactive 2003

Kevin Warwick
Kevin Warwick (Photo By Michael May)

I, Cyborg

Saturday, March 8, 5-6pm
A short way into his lecture, Kevin Warwick, professional cyborg and professor at the University of Reading, UK, revealed the real reason why a professor would be willing to go under the knife and prove that cybernetics can work. "Why should I really have to lecture?" he said, half-jesting. "I should be able to just send out an electronic signal to ports in your brain. THWACK! You've got it. It wouldn't matter if you are hung-over or on drugs or whatever, I wouldn't have to repeat myself, and I wouldn't have to give a test. I would be sure that you know it." Warwick's point is not that machines are smarter than humans, but that they are smart in different ways than humans. With just a little help from machines, the old noggin could be equipped with limitless memory, immediate access to databases, telepathic communication, and cool features like the ability to see in more than three dimensions.

Warwick can't read your mind -- yet. His experiments, however, have shown that a computer can read nervous-system signals and put them to use. The most immediate applications would be health-related. For example, a paralyzed person could have a port installed in his brain that would allow him to control robot arms and legs. Warwick explained afterward that the technology is there, but the research is difficult to get approved because of ethical considerations. "I get e-mails from paralyzed individuals all the time," he said. "They are happy to volunteer, but it's impossible right now to get approval for that. It is very frustrating, knowing you could help someone but not being able to provide the technology."

Those who have seen the press shots of Warwick looking dead serious with his futuristic nervous-system-interface armband were in for a pleasant surprise. Warwick charmed the audience with his unpretentious style and lilting Scottish accent. "I quite fancy being a cyborg," he said. "I see the way machines communicate, and I am almost embarrassed that I am still only human and can only communicate serially. Machines can send millions of messages simultaneously with hardly an error! Why can't we use that?"

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