This is the first of eight stories in our Web feature on self-experimenters.
As Kevin Warwick gently squeezed his hand into a fist one day in 2002, a robotic hand came to life 3,400 miles away and mimicked the gesture. The University of Reading cybernetics professor had successfully wired the nerves of his forearm to a computer in New York City's Columbia University and networked them to a robotic system back in his Reading, England, lab. "My body was effectively extended over the Internet," Warwick says.
It's a far cry from his vision of transforming humanity into a race of half-machine cyborgs able to commune with the digital world—there is no spoon, Neo—but such an evolution is necessary, says 54-year-old Warwick. Those who don't avail themselves of subcutaneous microchips and other implanted technology, he predicts, will be at a serious disadvantage in tomorrow's world, because they won't be able to communicate with the "superintelligent machines" sure to be occupying the highest rungs of society, as he explains in a 2003 documentary, Building Gods, which is circulating online.
Something of a self-promoter, Warwick, or "Captain Cyborg" as a U.K. newspaper once dubbed him, has appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and other shows on the TV talk circuit to tout his work. In his 2004 book, I, Cyborg, he describes his research as "the extraordinary story of my adventure as the first human entering into a cyber world."
More reserved in conversation, Warwick says he wants to advance brain–machine interfaces (BMI) beyond current studies in nonhuman primates, such as a recent experiment that synched up a pair of robot legs with a jogging, BMI-outfitted monkey. He says the short-term benefits could be smarter prosthetics for amputees, infrared-based sensory systems for the blind and brain implants to treat Parkinson's disease.
Daniela Cerqui, an anthropology professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, who has followed Warwick's work since 2004, says she "met people very fascinated with what he was doing." She adds: "I also met engineers who didn't think what he was doing was real science."
In 1998 Warwick was one of the first people to have a simple digital transmitter known as a radio-frequency identification device (RFID) implanted just below the skin in his upper left arm. For nine glorious days doors parted and lights switched on for him in the University of Reading Department of Cybernetics as the RFID alerted different sensors to Warwick's approach. In 2002 he had electrodes implanted in the nerves of his left forearm (prudent for a right-hander).
He used the implant to enslave the robot hand far away in Reading, an electric wheelchair and the lights in his lab as well as to communicate with his wife, Irena. She had agreed to receive a similar implant to see if hus-borg and wife could exchange electrical signals. "If she moved her hand," Warwick says, "my nervous system received one pulse. If she moved her hand three times, I received three pulses."
He hopes to have a sensor implanted in his brain by 2015 that will allow him to send signals across a computer network. Of course, a Brown University team has already moved the goalposts much closer: In 2006 researchers reported that a 25-year-old quadriplegic man had guided a computer cursor and moved a prosthetic arm via a brain implant. Warwick may have trouble finding a doctor to implant a similar device without a compelling medical reason, points out Charles Higgins, an associate professor of electrical engineering and neurobiology at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Sure, he might damage his brain, but for Warwick, it's the lesser of two evils. In his vision of a future dominated by cyborgs and intelligent machines, the outlook for those who refuse implants is grim: "I guess they'll be some sort of subspecies. Just like we have cows now," he says, "so we'll have humans in the future." And he'd rather not be put out to pasture.