Man and machine unite in professor's research

Next goal: to link himself, wife by chip

February 28, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

READING, England -- Kevin Warwick is professor silicon. The robot man. The human guinea pig who in 1998 decided it would be swell to walk around for nine days with a silicon chip implanted in his left arm to monitor his movements.

The experiment was such a hit, he's planning another one in the next two years or so, with his wife, a his-and-hers chip implant possibly using the Internet to communicate movement and emotion signals.

Who needs cell phones when you can transmit chip to chip?

This may sound strange and slightly spooky, yet, according to Warwick, it's not. This is the future, as envisioned by a man who builds robots and works in a laboratory that could double for a "Star Wars" repair shop.

Warwick is a professor of cybernetics, a scientist studying communication systems in organisms and machines, trying to understand how humans and technology interact.

Already, he has a good idea of who will win the inevitable contest between people and machines.

It'll be the machines, hands down.

"Humans are now in the driving seat because we're more intelligent than dogs, cats, ants and things like that," he says.

"We're the best thing going. If machines more intelligent than us come along, they will be in the driving seat. And we will be like dogs and cats are to us.

"We're going to see superintelligent machines that will control our destiny, that will decide where humans fit into this apart from being some aggravating zit on the side of the machine's face."

Warwick's world is not for the squeamish, which is all the more surprising because the 45-year-old father of two comes off like such a regular guy, a college prof in jeans and a sweater, with a tangle of dark hair and a calm voice.

He doesn't fit comfortably into the stereotype of "mad scientist" or "great British eccentric." Yet he clearly revels in his role as an explorer of the future, taking a visitor on a tour of the University of Reading's cybernetics department, with its robots that look like cockroaches and miniature golf carts, banks of computers, and doors that open automatically.

He has seen the future, and it's machines.

"I will take what there is and tweak and push it past the limit, see how far we can get it to go," he says.

Warwick pushes the envelope, whether it's science or writing.

"I was born human," he writes in an article, "Cyborg 1.0," in Wired magazine's February issue. "But this was an accident of fate -- a condition merely of time and place. I believe it's something we have the power to change."

This schoolteacher's son might just be on the cutting edge of such a change.

Warwick comes from Coventry, Britain's Detroit, once the center of a vibrant auto industry and emblematic of the brawny old economy. He left school at age 16 and worked for six years as a technician for the telephone company, British Telecom. He learned how to solve practical problems, a trait that would later come in handy when dealing with robots.

At 22, he went back to school, studying electronic engineering and earning a doctorate in computer control at Imperial College, London.

Most college professors spend years in obscurity, known only to colleagues or a handful of students.

Not Warwick.

This is a man with a knack for publicity. Followed by camera crews, he once went jogging with a robot named Rogerr. But there are still some things better done by humans. Warwick went one way. And the robot, lured by the sunlight, went the other, right into a curb.

Rogerr, who looks like a mini-Zamboni, now resides under a stairway.

"It's time we binned it," Warwick says, which is British for, send the robot to the Dumpster.

Warwick made real headlines in August 1998, when a doctor burrowed a hole in his upper left arm and inserted a silicon chip enclosed in a glass cylinder that was 23 millimeters long. For nine days, when he walked around his office, the chip communicated with a computer via radio waves.

`Part of me'

"The implant was part of me," Warwick says, adding that, in a way, so was the computer.

Despite his yearning to meld people with computers, he has few illusions about where it all might lead.

"I think it will take humanity away," he says.

All that remains of that initial experiment is a tiny scar on Warwick's arm. The chip is in the Science Museum in London.

But the professor has already dreamed up his encore.

Within the next 18 months, he hopes to have another chip inserted in his arm. This time, the goal is to have communication take place between his nervous system and a computer.

He wants to investigate movement. He'll try wiggling an index finger, with the signals of his nerve fibers transmitted to the computer, where the information will be stored and then played back. Will his index finger move in the same manner? Will it twitch?

He'll also attempt to record his physical reactions to emotions such as shock and anger, or even the sensation of drinking a glass or two of wine. When the computer plays those reactions back, Warwick says he'll be leaping into "the big unknown."

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