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EDITIONS
Friday, 2 August, 2002, 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK
Why I'm not impressed with Professor Cyborg

Kevin Warwick is the professor who puts microchips in his arm and sees a great future for cyborgs. He's good at getting in the news, but not everyone is impressed.
You've got to hand it to Professor Kevin Warwick.

Whether he's proclaiming himself "the world's first cyborg", or touting his university department of photogenic robot animals, he shows an almost intuitive grasp of an even less well-understood discipline: what makes a good headline.


Prof Kevin Warwick
  • 1998: Has a silicon chip transponder put in arm. Lets him operate doors and lights automatically
  • 2000: Has an implant which links nervous system to internet
  • 2002: Controls robot arm across Atlantic, claims sixth sense


  • But, as well as provoking the envy of other academics, Warwick's media profile has a more serious downside.

    Because stories in newspapers aren't usually structured like proper scientific write-ups - with a hypothesis, apparatus, method, results and conclusion - they make it difficult to objectively assess his work.

    Most of the time, the interested reader or viewer is left wondering: What the hell is he doing?

    Perhaps to address this shortfall, Kevin has written up his latest electronic-implant experiment in the book I, Cyborg, complete with a terrifying cover-picture of him looking like The Terminator.

    He'll be back

    Once again, it does not entirely follow the traditional format ("Apparatus: Surreptitiously obtained neural electrodes intended for use with cats. A local hospital. Some Lego. The credulous world media. My wife.")


    Britain's leading prophet of the robot age

    Gillian Anderson on Warwick
    But, to his credit, he does make a brave attempt to address much of the criticism he's received. And then spoils it all at the end by ranting about the imminent enslavery of humanity again.

    First up, the popular allegation that he hasn't published many scientific papers. The book documents his academic output and lecture tours in almost excruciating detail - along with some more unusual sources of acclaim, including Gillian Anderson (who plays Agent Scully in The X-Files), and noted peer-review journals The Guinness Book Of Records and The Mail On Sunday.

    I, Cyborg cover
    Cover of I, Cyborg, published on Friday
    Second, this whole business about being the "world's first cyborg". I've wondered about this for a while: "cyborg", short for "cybernetic organism", is generally used to mean a human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices. Which presumably includes artificial limbs, pacemakers, or those cochlear implants which actually stimulate the auditory nerves of the hearing impaired.

    But Kevin says they're not real cyborgs, because they're all trying to fix a defect - whereas he is upgrading the human body with new abilities.

    Pioneer

    Specifically, the new abilities he's hoping for include: ultrasonic extra-sensory input (so that, bat-like, he can tell how far away things are with his eyes shut), controlling a robot from his nervous system, sending impulses from his nerves to those of his wife (and vice versa) - and, pioneeringly, the power to influence "interactive jewellery".

    And finally, there are some promising indications that, before attempting to wire his nervous system up to his wife's, he did read up on the field to see if anyone had done anything similar - but it turned out to be full of well-meaning researchers sticking electrodes into monkeys.

    To be fair, the build-up to the actual implanting makes for interesting reading, in a do-we-know-what-we're-doing? and will-we-run-out-of-money? kind of way.

    Implant
    Warwick receives his first implant, in 1998
    But once the nerve-monitoring electrodes are safely embedded in his arm, Warwick's instinct for public relations - inevitably - kicks in.

    He isn't content to demonstrate his neural impulses travelling across the internet to control a robot arm on the other side of the office. No, he has to fly to New York - a more impressive photo opportunity.

    And, yes, he does manage a form of primitive Morse-code-style nervous-system-to-nervous-system communication with his wife - but it's a far cry from the transmission of emotions, mental states and sexual arousal which he previously prophesied.

    Melodrama

    In the classic Conclusion section cop-out sentence, Kevin notes that "Further studies would be necessary" to investigate this area. I suggest he starts with further studies into why he believes that moods are mediated by your arms' motor neurons in the first place.

    Responding to criticisms that he uses "highly emotive language", Warwick portrays himself as a populist, a communicator, who cares so passionately about science that he has to let the public know about his work by any means he can.

    Unfortunately, this is somewhat undermined by the book's melodramatic warnings that this very experiment could leave him dead, "a mental vegetable", or with a mild pain in his arm.

    Ultimately, it's up to history to judge whether his experiments are a worthwhile investigation of neural control systems or a succession of neat publicity stunts.

    But I can't imagine that his increasingly baroque justifications - his predicted future where non-cyborg-enhanced humans become second-class citizens - are genuinely helping his cause.

    If his work is as good as he says it is, he really needs to start letting it speak for itself. And for someone who's constantly critical of the "enormous errors" in contemporary human communication, maybe Kevin should, every now and again, consider keeping his mouth shut.


    I, Cyborg is published on Friday by Century at 16.99

    Some of your comments so far:

    I think it's wrong for the author of this article be critical of someone who is clearly trying to interest people in science. Surely Prof Warwick beats the dry, dull image of scientists that we are used to.
    David Haslam, UK

    I think underneath all this is a serious point that is being missed: Where are the famous engineers and scientists? In this country we afford them very little credit and even less in terms of fiscal remuneration. It's about time they were appreciated, even if Warwick will never be a Brunel or Stephenson.
    Lyndon Hill, UK

    Reporting science is difficult to do, because when arguments and evidence are weighed up, the answer is rarely black and white. It is a shame that reporting of science too often tries to simplify to the point where member of the public can be misled. I think that trying to raise the profile of science is a noble aim, but it must be done in a properly balanced way.
    Matt Hammond, UK

    Kevin IS the future. The future of scientists.
    John Hughes, UK

    It simply is not fair to say that Prof. W's work has not had adequate peer review - it is the subject of a great deal of academic interest - for instance, his work features strongly in the Open University "T209" technology course - presumably the good Dr's etc. at the OU wouldn't place such an emphasis on work with no substantial, proven scientific basis. So what, the man blows his own trumpet? If it gets him attention, (and presumably funding) all the better! I think it's fair to say that his work has brought Reading University to the world's attention - it is now renowned as being on the leading edge of technology - Prof. Warwick has played a small part in demonstrating that we too have our own silicon valley down the M4 corridor.
    Darren Weekes, England

    Prof Warwick, like all pioneers throughout history, will always have many people who 'poo-poo' what he is doing simply because they have no vision. 100 years ago - a geosynchronous satellite or a jet engine would have been met with "what the heck are you planning to do with that crazy contraption" Even if only 5% of Prof Warwick's work end up in useful applications - it will have been well worth it.
    Richard, US

    I completely agree with the comment by Mr Haslam. What percentage of the population reads scientific jounals? In my opinion, Prof Warwick is using the best possible medium to include everybody in a subject which he obviously has great enthusiasm for.
    Martin Leonard, UK

    I think a lot of Prof. Warwick's ideas are more suited to the world of science fiction rather than science fact. Which is fine provided he explicitly labels which are which. I've no doubt he has made some worthwhile contributions to science, but it'll be hard to find them if they're hidden among bad science fiction.
    Ben, UK

    Frankly, having followed his media career over the years, I have to agree completely with Dave Green's analysis - Prof. Warwick's publicity seeking just serves to bring other serious research into disrepute and ridicule. I am sure Prof. Warwick has done, and can continue to do valuable work, but a little less of the sensationalist claims would be greatly appreciated.
    Martin, UK

    Popularisation of science is a fine line to walk between being too dull for most people to care about and too academic for most people to care about. Richard Feynman, Stephen Jay Gould, Jacques Cousteau, Patrick Moore and Carl Sagan have all managed it with panache. I'd say Prof Warwick's attempts turn what could be an interesting and controversial subject into magic tricks or a circus.
    Daen de Leon, Denmark

    Though I sometimes don't agree with Prof. W's self-promotion, he does raise valid interest in research and development of future technologies. I just wish more people in academia had his enthusiasm and conviction.
    Tom Barnard, UK

    By blurring the line between hard science and 'friendly' science, Warwick is making it difficult for the public to discern what is useful information, and what is blue-sky speculation.
    Gareth, UK

    By sellotaping a large nail to my finger I was able to remotely control a keyboard and not only browse the internet without actually touching the keyboard with my fingers but switch my computer on and off. Next part of the experiment is to tape more nails to the rest of my fingers.
    Simon Mallett, UK

    It does scientific debate no good to state that just because someone is attempting to engage the interest of the general populous they are above criticism. The "Wow" factor creates mainstream media headlines and public interest but if the public does not have a clear understanding of possible goals and implications what purpose does it serve?
    DaveC, England

    The guy had the guts to have an electrode implanted in his arm. This sort of experiment is just what's needed for us to move forward. More power to your arm Kevin!
    Mark Young, UK

    If I connected a scanner to my catflap so it opened only for my 'chipped' cat does it make my moggy a cyborg?
    Daniel Timms, England

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    See also:

    26 Aug 98 | Science/Nature
    16 Dec 00 | Newsmakers
    22 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
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