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Cyborg professor looks to future of bionic technology

By Alex Pasternack, Motherboard Editor
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Professor is human-robot hybrid
  • Kevin Warwick had radio frequency ID chip implanted in his arm in 1998
  • Implant allows him to turn on lights by snapping fingers, open doors without touching them
  • Warwick says he doesn't want to turn into a robot, he wants to be a better human

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Brooklyn, New York (VBS.TV) -- In 1998, Kevin Warwick became what some people call "the world's first cyborg." To be exact, Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at Reading University, had a radio frequency ID chip implanted in his arm. Years before RFID chips became common, this small implant allowed him to turn on lights by snapping his fingers, or open doors without touching them.

Once, after connecting his nerves to an array of electrodes in 2002, he let his wife use her brain waves to take control of his body. It was the first time the nervous systems of two humans had communicated electronically. "It was quite an intimate feeling," he says.

This isn't just for fun, Warwick tells, VBS' technology channel. He is certain that without upgrading, we humans will someday fall behind the advances of the robots we're building -- or worse. "Someday we'll switch on that machine, and we won't be able to switch it off," he says, sounding a note of alarm that clashes with the cheery visions of futurists like Ray Kurzweil. That might explain why he has very little technology at home, and counts "The Terminator" among his biggest influences.

Warwick doesn't want to turn into a robot: He wants to be a better human. Augmenting human ability, not turning into an automaton, is, after all, the premise of the "cyborg." One of the term's earliest uses, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in a 1960 New York Times article: "A cyborg is essentially a man-machine system in which the control mechanisms of the human portion are modified externally by drugs or regulatory devices so that the being can live in an environment different from the normal one."

See the rest of "The Cyborg" at VBS.TV

Today, the argument for cybernetics may seem more imperative than ever. Already the latest bionic technologies are allowing deaf children to hear and disabled war veterans to run again. Technologists, meanwhile, see "augmented reality" applications for smartphones as doing something similar for our brains, fortifying them for life in a world overflowing with data.

For now, Warwick, who will be awarded the Ellison-Cliffe Medal from the Royal Society of Medicine in 2011, is using his research into brain interfaces and autonomous robots to provide better insight into how memories are formed, and learn how to better treat brain diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. "Technology, directly integrated with the brain, can help overcome some problems people have," says Warwick. Brain implants could keep people fit, making sure, for instance, "you don't eat that chocolate cake that you want."

But the possibilities may also be stranger than we have yet imagined. Someday, says Warwick, humans could become "a curiosity for the machines."

" 'Look at that -- that's where we were in historical times,' they will think to each other."