The Bionic Man

To get an idea of the lengths Kevin Warwick will go to to satisfy his scientific curiosity, check out the purple two-inch scar on his left wrist. Last March surgeons hammered a tiny silicon chip studded with 100 electrodes directly into one of his arm's main nerves. The two-hour operation had never been tried before, and it might have left his hand paralyzed. When surgeons hit the nerve, it felt like a lightning strike. "It was exhilarating," says Warwick, a British cybernetics professor. "I wouldn't have missed it for the earth." The pain quickly passed and for the first time, Warwick says, the nervous system of a human being could trade messages with a computer. Man and machine had merged.

Warwick's four-month spell as a proto-cyborg might be a first step toward augmenting the human mind with machine intelligence. The chip, which linked to a computer, was removed in June after he'd conducted a range of experiments. This is the first step, he believes, to augmenting the human mind with machine intelligence. In important ways, he says, the brain trails far behind the computer. The brain has a woefully limited memory, it doesn't operate efficiently in a network and it's slow to download data. "From my research with robots, I can see their intelligence," says Warwick. "Why not look at this technology to explore the possibility of upgrading people?" In time, he says, an implant or an injection might deliver a simple microdevice that turns the average Joe into an imposing cyborg, with superhuman powers.

For the moment, Warwick's efforts have gone toward proving that implant technology can create a new form of mind-machine communication. Since the human nervous system uses electrochemical signals to carry messages, there's no reason it can't be made compatible with the electronic signals of a computer. In his latest groundbreaking experiments (detailed in his autobiography, "I, Cyborg," recently published in the United Kingdom), Warwick has already tested the concept. He's linked himself to computers via both--wires and radio transmitters and passed signals back and forth between his nervous system and electromechanical devices. The electrode in his arm picked up neural signals and sent them on to a computer, which converted them into instructions for a three-fingered robot hand elsewhere in his lab. When Warwick clenched his hand, so did the robot. Similarly, Warwick used the chip to control a small robot on wheels. He's even rigged up a computer-mediated mind meld of sorts. He fitted himself and his wife, Irena, with matching chips, each linked to a computer. When Irena clenched her hand, Warwick's left index finger got a shot of current--a "beautiful, sweet, deliciously sexy charge," he says. The first cyborg foreplay?

In his native Britain, Warwick, 48, is something of a cyber bad boy. Some of his colleagues dismiss his work as a pointless sideshow and deride his forecasts of a cyborg future. He's got a knack for attention-grabbing. British Airways once refused a seat for his robotic cat. He's done research purportedly showing that a bacon sandwich for breakfast boosts a child's IQ and he recently offered to plant a microchip into an 11-year-old girl so her worried parents could track her movements. There's even a Web site that pokes fun at his frequent media appearances. He admits to a thirst for the kind of publicity that helps scare up funding from corporate backers. "If you are doing something that interests people, then the media are going to get interested," says Warwick. "This is all completely scientific and has important medical aspects."

Antics aside, his background and credentials are impressive. Academically, he was a late starter. He left school at 16 and worked as a telephone engineer, but after studying on his own he qualified for Aston University and graduated with first-class honors in electrical and electronic engineering. He taught at Oxford and, at age 32, was named a professor at Reading University.

Warwick's work could have some practical applications. Amputees might someday use brain signals to operate prosthetic limbs. Computers might send electronic messages to areas of the nervous system afflicted by, say, Parkinson's disease or epilepsy. Some day the handicapped might open doors just by thinking about it. But Warwick doesn't stop there. Down the road, he says, brain implants may allow human minds to commune with each other directly--without need for "the silly noises of speech." The patterns of neural signals associated with sexual pleasure or a drug high could be stored on computer and downloaded on command.

His ideas get weirder. In the wildly speculative final chapter of his book, Warwick looks forward to the day when implants might allow the body's functions like heart rate, blood pressure and temperature to be monitored in real time, helping to push up average life expectancy by 30 years. With apparent relish, he delivers his most bizarre vision: the world of 2050 dominated by a master race of cyborgs, their brains all linked to a global network, sharing access to a common superintelligence. Policing would be straightforward. The network would be aware of even the thought of crime crossing another cyborg's mind.

Few share such fantasies, but that doesn't bother Warwick. He's convinced that humankind has a lot to gain by a closer association with machines. "When we compare ourselves with technology, the way humans currently communicate is so poor as to be embarrassing. Human speech is an incredibly slow way of communicating." Why remain a dolt when there's a chance to improve? "If you could have a five-second operation that would increase your memory capability tenfold, would you accept it? A lot of people would." Just hold the mind control, please.