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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cyborg Society

Air Date: Week of

Producer Bob Carty has the third part of his series, Generation Next: Remaking the Human Race. This segment examines the benefits and consequences of melding man with machine to create cyborgs - people with bodies aided or controlled by technical devices. For modern science, the cyborg is presenting some exciting, and also disturbing, possibilities.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Today, we continue our series, Generation Next, with a look at the marriage of humans and machines. It’s what some call the cyborg society. Cyborgs are humans who are aided or controlled by technical devices. These bionic people have wandered the realm of science fiction for years. But now, more and more scientists are actually finding ways to meld the intelligence of computers with the human mind. And as producer Bob Carty explains, the cyborg is presenting some exciting and also disturbing possibilities.


CARTY: In Atlanta, Georgia, a man lies in a hospital bed, his head slightly elevated on a pillow. Around him are the many machines of modern medicine blinking and beeping. But this hospital room has more machines than normal: transformers and wires and cables and computers, all surrounding the motionless patient. His name is Johnny Ray.

KENNEDY: Johnny is a 54-year-old. He was a drywall contractor from Douglasville, Georgia, a great guitar player, actually. He used to play in a country rock band. And he apparently could hold any audience in the palm of his hand.

CARTY: Dr. Philip Kennedy is a neurologist who has come to be a very special friend to Johnny Ray. Johnny had high blood pressure. In 1997, he had a severe heart attack. That was bad enough. But then a blood clot went to his brain and caused bleeding into the brain stem. And that left Johnny completely paralyzed. He was taken to the Atlanta Hospital, put in a bed with a ventilator and left there. They thought he was in a coma, one that was likely permanent. They thought he’d never again communicate with the world. They were wrong.

KENNEDY: He was in ICU. And they realized that he was awake and listening, could understand. He could blink back at them. And eventually, they realized that he was awake, alert, intelligent, but couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. In that sense, he was locked in. The man is still there, but he just can’t move or do anything to communicate.

CARTY: That’s when the hospital got in touch with Dr. Kennedy. For two decades, he had been studying ways to tap into the brain waves of animals and humans. Johnny Ray’s family asked Dr. Kennedy to try a bold new experiment to rescue him from his prison of silence.

Dr. Kennedy drilled a hole in Johnny’s skull. He inserted some gold electrodes in the part of the brain that moves the hands. After a few months, new brain cells had grown around the electrodes and Dr. Kennedy could get a reading of Johnny’s brain waves.

The next step was to train Johnny Ray. Dr. Kennedy told Johnny to think about moving his paralyzed hand up. Just think about moving it up, then down. The brain signals that they produced were amplified, sent to a computer and correlated to computer instructions for the cursor. Slowly, just by thinking, Johnny began to move the cursor. He began to be able to select letters on the screen and then came the big breakthrough.

KENNEDY: It was, I think, August of ’98 or so when he had been spelling his name, and making errors. And he finally spelled his name and I think just maybe one error. And then we took a rest and we’d start over. And then, instead of spelling J-O-H-N, he spelled P-H-I-L. He started to spell my name. So he had a sense of humor. And that was the moment I felt a tremendous emotional rush. He went from being almost totally locked in, unable to communicate except with eye blinks, to being able to spell on this system and output what he wanted to say with a speech synthesizer. It sounds very simple. But it’s very profound.

CARTY: The simplicity is that Johnny Ray’s thoughts moved the cursor just like most of us do manually, with a computer mouse. What’s profound is that the cursor has become part of Johnny Ray in a very special way. People who are not paralyzed don’t say to their hands, hey, move hand. It’s just automatic. And the same goes for Johnny. The computer cursor is now a natural part of who he is, more a part than his own hands.

This is just one frontier in the melding of human beings and machines. Across the Atlantic Ocean is another frontier, with even bolder aspirations.

WARWICK: I don’t want to be a human anymore. I would like to be a cyborg. I would like to have extra capabilities. And the research we’re doing is pushing in that direction, upgrading humanity.

CARTY: Kevin Warwick is the head of the Cybernetics Department at Reading University, about 50 miles west of London, England. Warwick is the author of a book called In the Mind of the Machine. And two years ago, he conducted a sort of mind and machine experiment on himself. He had a silicon chip locator device surgically implanted in his arm. That device has since been taken out. But standing today at the entrance of his university, Kevin Warwick explains how the chip works.

WARWICK: The implant was actually in position in my arm for nine days. What it did was send out an identifying signal, by radio, to the computer in the building. For example, when I came in, in the morning, coming through the front door--

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Hello, Professor Warwick.

WARWICK: Hello, Professor Warwick. So it was quite a formal computer. But hopefully, it will liven up a little bit as time goes by. Also, coming in the front door, as we can see, the light comes on. As it picks me up here, monitors that it’s me, as we can see. There we go. The door opens automatically. And we can see, at different points around the building, the various pickup nodes where, with the implant, as I moved around, it could track me, monitor me.

CARTY: There goes your privacy, though.

WARWICK: Very much so. It’s a two-way process. You’re giving up privacy. The computer knows a lot more about you. But you gain the fact that the computer can do things for you.

CARTY: Now, the lights go on, the doors open, security, the computer says – all these things, I imagine, could be done with just a security card worn around your neck.

WARWICK: Just a smart card can do everything, yeah.

CARTY: So why implant something?

WARWICK: Right. Well I guess the implant is looking to the future. Firstly, it gave me a feeling. Very quickly, I got this strange mental link, as though the computer was associated with me. And somehow, inside my body, as it were, when the implant was taken out, I got to quite miss it.

CARTY: Kevin Warwick’s first experiment gave him some insights into how these kind of implants might be used for things like monitoring prisoners or pedophiles. It also opened up some possibilities for how intelligent buildings might work.

But the real purpose was to pave the way for the second phase of Warwick’s experiment, one that he was planning as we spoke. The idea this time is to implant a device that will read the electronic signals of his nervous system. Those signals, the signals that convey thought, emotion, and muscle movements will be sent to a computer. And then the computer will be able to send the signals back to Kevin Warwick.

If it works, the experiment could help people who are paralyzed to use their thoughts, connected to a computer, to direct their own wheelchairs or to stimulate their own muscle movements electronically. In effect, maybe the lame could walk one day.

WARWICK: It’s the whole concept of remote control. So, the computer then would be controlling movement to some extent, which opens up positives and negatives. The remote control of an individual. Do we want it? Is this ethically correct? Could be good, could be bad. But also, there’s the case of, say, Christopher Reeve’s situation. He’s paralyzed from about, the worst case, the neck down. Can we, in the future, get people like that moving around again? Can we send electronic signals into the body that cheer you up, for example?

CARTY: These kinds of experiments in human/machine marriages are creating tremendous excitement in the field of neurological medicine. Back in Atlanta, Dr. Philip Kennedy has received more than a million dollars from the federal government to work with eight more stroke victims like Johnny Ray. Kennedy says this technology offers hope, not only to quadriplegics like Christopher Reeve, but also to the estimated 25,000 adults in the U.S. who are in a persistent vegetative state. It could also help the 30,000 people with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, who now slowly lose their ability to communicate. And these developments are not so far away.

KENNEDY: Five years down the road, I hope that no locked-in patient will remain locked in, that they’ll be able to communicate. Five years down the road, hopefully we’ll be on our way to demonstrating that we can use signals from the brain to restore movement to paralyzed muscles. And 10, 15 years out, I think those systems, of one kind or another, will be in place, some type of hybrid system that will help patients who are now paralyzed to actually move.

CARTY: These are the positive potentials of cyborg technology. But it is technology that also has a dark side. For example, U.S. military leaders predict that, in 20 years, American soldiers and policemen could be implanted with mechanical or computer devices to increase their strength, endurance, memory and vision. Kevin Warwick’s experiment might help an army commander remote control the emotions of his soldiers on the battlefield. Enter the cyborg soldier. And then there are the consumer possibilities. If the melding of machines and human flesh can help people with paralysis, it could also be used on healthy people, not to compensate for disabilities, but to enhance abilities, giving some people superhero strength or intelligence. Enter the bionic person. It’s a prospect that, frankly, excites Kevin Warwick.

WARWICK: Well, I look at the capabilities of machines, of robots, and say, well, this is fantastic. And how I communicate by speech is so outdated. I’m embarrassed, as a human, still to communicate like we’ve been communicating. Whereas we know machines can communicate in parallel all around the world in a very rich way, I would like to be able to do that. So it’s looking to upgrade humans.

CARTY: Upgrading humans. It sounds like something out of a Schwarzenegger movie. But, Kevin Warwick is serious. He thinks cyborg technology is actually essential to human survival, to prevent intelligent machines from taking over from humans. This is an idea that has been popularized by Bill Joy, one of the pioneers of the computer revolution and the cofounder of Sun Microsystems. Bill Joy contends that society is becoming more and more dependent on machine-made decision. He says those decisions will soon become so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. And at that stage, machines will be in control. And he says people won’t be able to turn them off because turning them off would amount to suicide. Kevin Warwick agrees.

WARWICK: The cyborg is really a case of saying, well if you can’t beat intelligent robots, let’s join them, almost become the same. So the concept of humanity staying in the driving seat, I think, that’s out of it, really, just like humans and chimpanzees split millions of years ago. So we’ve got here the possibility of cyborgs and humans splitting. And staying as a human, really, I think you’d be so inferior in comparison. Yeah, it is losing control. But it’s a case of do we lose control to intelligent machines, as humans? Or do humans lose control to cyborgs?

CARTY: Some of Kevin Warwick’s ideas have been greeted with a measure of skepticism in England. Some British papers have called him a ‘media tart.’ But he is a well-published scientist. And he is not alone in his thinking. Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist and science writer, has also recently warned we have to have direct links between human brains and computers to stop intelligent machines from taking over the world.

WOLBRING: I’m technologically challenged.

CARTY: Gregor Wolbring is someone you might think would embrace cyborg technology. He’s a thalidomide child, born with no legs. He has to set himself up in front of his computer by crawling. But Wolbring never grew up with a sense of inferiority. He became a professor of biochemistry and of bioethics at the University of Calgary. And he runs an internet network of disabled activists. Gregor does have a pair of artificial legs, but they’re stored in the corner, with a teddy bear stuffed in them. Gregor Wolbring prefers to crawl around his house on his arms. It’s his choice.

WOLBRING: I mean, that’s my personal exercise. I don’t have to pay for that. Some people have to get a personal trainer. I use my stairs.

CARTY: And that more or less sums up Gregor Wolbring’s attitude toward cyborg technology. He’s not against it. If disabled people choose to use it, and as long as it’s available to all and not just the rich, he thinks it’s just fine as a prosthetic. But he is terrified by Kevin Warwick’s scenario, a scenario of a future where there’s a class divide between cyborgs and so-called "normal people." That would be a bad move, according to Gregor Wolbring, and it would make life even more difficult for the disabled.

WOLBRING: This technology will be able so much to redefine what a human body is supposed to be, that it becomes really problematic. It’s like if Chrysler would sell their cars by saying, you people, you are so deficient. You can’t walk 50 miles an hour. So, you have to buy my car so that you are up to speed in becoming the norm. So if you sell me the artificial legs by saying, you are deficient, and you’re a horrific sight to look at, and that’s why you have to use artificial legs. So, you are, again, as we expect you to be. That’s limiting more and more what is a human being. It has to be top notch, top gun. That’s not what a human being is all about.

CARTY: Other scientists, though, are eager to change what being human is all about. Researchers in Rhode Island have taught monkeys to play a computer pinball game with their thoughts, not their hands. In Australia, scientists have made a wearable device that lets you turn on lights and radios just by thinking. And Kevin Warwick has started his second implant experiment to link his nervous system with computers.

Cyborg technologies do have a strong attraction for people seeking medical therapies. But they are also an irresistible temptation to the military and a lure to affluent people who want to make themselves much better than others.

But so far, there has been very little social or ethical or legal debate about the uses and abuses of such technology. And there should be, according to Dr. Philip Kennedy. Dr. Kennedy is committed to this technology, but only for medical uses. He’s worried about how far others might go.

KENNEDY: There is a possibility that people will sort of get carried away with it. And we get to the point of wondering if it’s all justifiable. I think it certainly is for therapeutic purposes. But for going to war and that, I don’t know. I’m certainly not going in that direction. Yeah, I would draw the line there. But, it’s probably inevitable. It’s probably going to happen no matter what we do or say.


CARTY: For Living on Earth, I’m Bob Carty.


CURWOOD: Our series continues next month with the debate over genetic therapy. Proponents say it can improve human health by removing genes that can lead to disease, or add a gene and make a better baby. But critics say genetic manipulation raises the specter of a superhuman race.

MALE: The individual who wants to make a species-altering change in a human being, or wants to change what it means to be human, can act like a moral terrorist. It is, if you will, a modern-day Frankenstein.

CURWOOD: The debate over designer genes, when our series, Generation Next: Remaking the Human Race, continues in July.




Kevin Warwick’s home page

Bill Joy's article on machines taking over (also cyborg)

Dr Philip Kennedy's company">


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