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Cyberfuturist plants chip in arm to test human-computer interaction


August 28, 1998
Web posted at: 11:30 AM EDT

by Jana Sanchez-Klein

(IDG) -- A professor at the University of Reading in England has had a silicon chip transponder implanted into his arm to demonstrate how computers and humans might be able to communicate in the future.

Professor Kevin Warwick envisions a world in which humans communicate directly with computers without extraneous input devices such as mice and keyboards, and a world in which humans network continually with computers, he said. The experiment could have wide-ranging implications for employers and for society in general as humans determine how closely they want to be connected with computers.

It's only temporary

The chip, about an inch long and one-tenth of an inch wide, was implanted into Warwick's arm on Monday afternoon in a surgical procedure lasting only 15 minutes. He was given a local anesthetic and is not currently in any pain, he said.

The chip is a commercially available product used in computers and other products for identification. Warwick is the first human to have such a chip implanted, he said. However, he declined to name the manufacturer of the chip.

With the chip implanted in his arm, Warwick is effectively wired up to the computers in his building at the university. When he walks throughout the building, computers automatically pull up preprogrammed Web pages such as his favorite sites, doors open, and computers say "Hello, Professor Warwick," or tell him how many e-mail messages he has.

If Warwick doesn't have the chip removed within ten days, his body will start to accept it, and removing it will become more of a surgical procedure, he said. He doesn't want to continue the experiment much past that point anyway.

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"I'm worried that technology will advance and I'll become obsolete--my wife will want to swap me for a more powerful chip," he quipped. That fear aside, Warwick may want to carry out an experiment in a year's time, he said.

Surprising results

The effect of the chip on his life has surprised him. "Literally, as I walk around the building, things happen. It's funny that I've become used to it. I now don't have to open doors," said the professor.

The long-term implications for widespread use of chip implants are apparent from the experiment. "I'm feeling more at one with the computer. It's as though part of me is missing when I'm not in the building," Warwick said. "In my house, I have to open doors and turn on lights. I don't feel lonely, but I don't feel complete," he added.

The ultimate aim of this technology, said Warwick, would be to connect humans more closely with computers. A simple example is responding to e-mails with the move of a finger, or ultimately connecting the computer to the human nervous system. "You then really have a direct connection from the brain to the computer. That has been a science fiction idea, but maybe technically this is step one," he said.

In such a future scenario, keyboards and mice will become obsolete, Warwick predicted. "This is the communications revolution between humans and computers," he said.

Serious implications

Looking at serious real-life potential applications of the technology, companies would be able to use the implants to monitor employees more closely during work. "The company would know when they come into the building and when they leave the building. They would know when employees went to the toilet and how long they stayed," suggested Warwick. "If you did get the sack, you would have to have your implant taken out. It might make people even less keen to get sacked, knowing it would mean surgery."

Broader examples of the technology's use could include implanting gun owners to prevent them from going into schools, or tagging pedophiles to keep them away from schools or child centers. "If that person tries to go into a school, bells would ring, doors would shut, and so forth. You could have pedophile-free zones," said Warwick.

Warwick is in the cybernetics department at the University of Reading. Cybernetics is the study of interaction between humans and machines.

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