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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 01:22 GMT
Cyborg study draws fire
Professor Warwick
Professor Warwick is a controversial figure in cybernetics
The controversial UK scientist Kevin Warwick has undergone surgery to connect his nervous system to a computer.

The professor of cybernetics at Reading University has had an array of electrodes implanted near his left wrist so that he can attempt to record and decode the signals that enable him to feel and wiggle his fingers.

It's a step into the unknown

Professor Kevin Warwick
But the experiment has already been dismissed by some experts in the field of neuroscience as having little or no value.

They say the type of signals the professor wants to pick up are beyond the sensitivity of current technology and he would get more valuable data by studying simpler organisms such as insects.

Shock and anger

The two-hour-long operation was carried out at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford. A silicon square about three millimetres wide was inserted just above the professor's left hand and its 100 electrodes, each as thin as a hair, connected to the median nerve.

Wires from the square come out of the forearm and are being linked to a transmitter/receiver so nerve messages can be radioed to a computer.

This particular implant leads us nowhere therapeutically and nowhere theoretically

Professor Steve McMahon
Professor Warwick will attempt to map out signals corresponding to finger movements, sensations and emotions such as shock, anger and excitement.

"They will be jumping me from behind to see what signals are generated when I'm surprised and monitoring me when I watch a video of my football club, Reading, playing," he said.

"It's a step into the unknown. We can't check on signals like that from animals because they can't speak." Electrical signals will also be fed back into his nervous system to see what movements result.

Good communicator

Professor Warwick has become a familiar figure in the media with his vision of how computers, and in particular robotics, can play a fundamental role in the evolution of the human species.

He foresees a day when people can be upgraded with artificial limbs or given implants for extra memory. His good communication skills saw him present the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lectures when they moved from the BBC to Channel Four two years ago.

But his pronouncements have irritated some in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence who feel his remarks are far too speculative.

And this latest experiment has produced a similar response from some neuroscientists. Steve McMahon, a professor of physiology at King's College London, told the BBC that the Reading scientist's experiment would gather little valuable data.

Big future

"The electrodes have virtually no chance of recording the neural activity associated with the signals transmitting painful or emotional states," the professor said.

"The nerve fibres that underlie those states create electrical signals that are just too small to detect with this technology.

"The use of electronic implants has a great future; people already have cardiac pacemakers and the deaf have cochlear implants. But this particular implant leads us nowhere therapeutically and nowhere theoretically."

He said Professor Warwick should pursue this work in organisms like cockroaches and flies which had less complex nervous systems and then make the leap to human subjects when the technology was sufficiently developed.

The BBC's Richard Hollingham
"Over the next few weeks he will carry out experiments"
See also:

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Kevin Warwick: Saviour of humankind?
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