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Saturday, 16 December, 2000, 14:39 GMT
Kevin Warwick: Saviour of humankind?
Robot man: Professor Kevin Warwick
Crazed scientist or gifted visionary? The jury is still out on wannabe cyborg Kevin Warwick, who gives this year's Royal Institution Christmas lectures. By Chris Jones of the BBC's News Profiles Unit.

He has been called "a buffoon" and "a media tart". But Professor Kevin Warwick insists he is engaged in a noble mission: to save humankind.

The ire of several academics has been well and truly aroused by the news that Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at Reading University, is to deliver the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas lectures, following in the footsteps of the distinguished physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, who delivered the inaugural lectures in 1825.

Prof Warwick has a transceiver implanted in 1998
Warwick had a transceiver implanted in 1998
Warwick is the man who has declared: "I want to do something with my life; I want to be a cyborg."

In 1998, he had his first experience of being a cybernetic organism, part human and part machine, when he had a silicon chip transponder surgically implanted in his arm, enabling him to operate doors and lights automatically and be greeted with a "Hello" from the building's computer.


Although other academics wondered about the value of the demonstration, the 46-year-old professor is planning to have another implant inserted in 2001 which should establish contact between a computer and his nervous system.

And if there are no complications, Kevin Warwick's wife, Irena, 52, will have a similar hour-long operation at Stoke Mandeville hospital, the world-renowned centre for spinal injuries.

Then, for two weeks, the £250,000 implant should enable the couple to transfer their physical feelings to each other - even when they are thousands of kilometres apart.

I want to be a cyborg

Professor Kevin Warwick
They intend to subject themselves to their phobias - Kevin is afraid of heights while Irena is scared of spiders - to find whether they experience each other's fear.

If the physical experiment works, Warwick will try to record the signals relating to emotions and play them back, raising the possibility of reliving sexual arousal or feeling tipsy.

But, bearing in mind that Stoke Mandeville Hospital is footing the bill for the surgery, there are other, perhaps more worthy, implications.


Professor Warwick's department has previously collaborated with the hospital on helping people overcome disabilities through technical aids; and it is hoped the experiment could eventually enable amputees to feel limb sensations again, or allow blind people to navigate around objects with ultrasonic radar, much as bats do.

Some of Warwick's previous experiments have encountered problems, though. A robot arm was unable to hold a teacup, while a robot called Roger attempted to follow the sun rather than a transmitter, and retired hurt from a half-marathon after crashing into a kerb.

Prof Kevin Warwick
Warwick: Future belongs to cyborgs
But Warwick maintains that his work is necessary to tackle problems that threaten the viability of the human race.

He asserts that before the century is out, intelligent machines will effectively take over from humans: "Just as we treat creatures less intelligent than ourselves now, so we'll see machines treating us, perhaps having humans in farms, humans in zoos and if we're lucky, human pets."

Youthful academic

And Kevin Warwick contends that a possible way for humans to escape this grim future is to evolve as cyborgs.

In future...humans may be in zoos

Professor Kevin Warwick
Professor Warwick left school at 16 and spent six years with British Telecom before embarking on an academic career in which he acquired a doctorate from Imperial College, London, and held posts at Oxford, Newcastle and Warwick universities before being offered the Chair at Reading at the age of 32.

He has made no attempt to discard his Coventry accent or his working-class origins and even some of his critics acknowledge he is charming and accommodating.

But that has done little to dispel the anger over his Royal Institution honour among Artificial Intelligence experts. Dr Inman Harvey of Sussex University, called Professor Warwick a "buffoon".


And another expert at Sussex, Blay Whitby, is anxious to stress that Warwick's views are "highly untypical". "Most people in the field feel he's providing false expectations and false fears," he says.

"The majority believe robots are nowhere near ruling a filing cabinet, let alone the world.

"I can understand why a professor should be seeking publicity to get funds, but we'd do better to worry about bacteria, which evolution has selected to attack us, or daisies, which are programmed to take over the world."

A robot walks down a busy city street
Could robots become a comnmon sight on the streets?
Professor Susan Greenfield, the director of the Royal Institution, has expressed her "whole-hearted support" for Kevin Warwick, but outside the academic cloisters of the scientific world, even the most assertive have confessed themselves unqualified to judge.

On BBC Radio Four's Start the Week programme, the Rottweiler interrogator, Jeremy Paxman, told Warwick: "You're either a visionary genius, or a publicity-crazed lunatic; I'm not sure which."

Kevin Warwick on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week
"Wouldn't it be better to upgrade humans?"

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