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INTELLIGENT LIFE

I, ROBOT 1. 0

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THE HAND THAT ROCKS: Kevin Warwick, pictured here manipulating a robotic hand with electrodes implanted in his, says he's now a bionic man, of sorts

For Kevin Warwick, implanting electrodes in his body was but a natural corollary of his fascination with technology and science fiction. He grew up amidst talk of how we wouldn't need keys to our houses or cars, how doors would recognise people and open automatically, how implants in the body would work as identity cards et al.

Books, too, like Terminal Man by Michael Crichton, fired the imagination of the young Warwick. Crichton's book, interestingly, is about a guy with electrodes inserted into his brain. Warwick, who is currently a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, UK, felt such things could be in the realm of the possible and began to make use of the facilities at the university to turn fiction into reality.

After some six years of planning, Warwick, in 1998, became the world's first cyborg - a person who gains some 'superhuman' capabilities by implanting mechanical devices in his body. He got an RFID chip implanted within his muscles in the left arm, which emitted a unique identifying signal. A computer monitored Warwick as he moved through the halls and offices of the university.

The RFID experiment excited Warwick no end. "We found that computers in our room recognised me and greeted me with hello, doors opened as I walked in and lights switched on, " said Warwick during an interaction. He was in Bangalore recently for a lecture.

He said the experiment was not just about having a chip in the body. He was staring at the possibility of intelligent buildings. "Probably, there could be technology that will enable, for example, the airport to recognise you and guide you around in your language, " he said.

Warwick followed the chip experiment with a more complicated one four years later. As many as 100 electrodes were implanted into the nerve fibres of his left arm during a two-hour surgery. He was able to control an electric wheelchair and an intelligent artificial hand. The implant could also create artificial sensation by stimulation via the electrodes. He was also able to exchange electrical signals with his wife Irene, who had a similar implant in her.

As one would imagine, implanting electrodes is no easy task. Besides finding a friendly surgeon and getting ethical approvals, Warwick and team had to tackle much that was clearly unknown. "Textbooks said the highest frequency you could measure on the nervous system is 1 KHz. So we designed the circuitry for that. But we were picking up 7 or 8 KHz. So the book was completely wrong, and we had to redesign the circuitry. "

Sceptics, who mocked what they thought were Warwick's needlessly bizarre ways, were another challenge. He felt most people seemed happy to read sci-fi, but didn't seem comfortable with actually setting out to try and create what they read.
As part of the same experiment, in 2002, Warwick connected his nervous system to a computer in New York city's Columbia University, and over the internet, controlled a robotic hand back in his university lab in the UK. He thus became perhaps the only human being to have actually 'felt' the internet. It took Warwick nearly six weeks to train his brain to pick up the signals. When the robotic fingers were gripping an object, it sent pulses to his nervous system and his brain picked them up.

Warwick and his team hope their experiments will one day help people with serious physiological and neurological disabilities. "People who have lost their limbs will be able to pretty accurately control, say, their artificial hands. Paraplegics and quadriplegics too could benefit. "
He feels that more than technological hurdles, it's engineering and practical problems that are standing in the way of daily-life applications of his experiment.

Obviously, for someone on such a curious course, interesting anecdotes abound. One day, as his team was working, members found that the signals were going haywire. They soon realised that their wired system was picking up the text messages that fellow researcher Mark was receiving on his cellphone. It also sort of proved that cellphone signals do affect the brain and nervous system. What is not known is whether the effect is harmful or not, Warwick says. In another incident, the research team picked up songs being broadcast from a nearby radio station. By plugging the nervous system into a sound card they could listen to the songs.

Though Warwick and team have covered considerable ground, Project Cyborg is far from over. He is preparing for the next stage of experiments: an implant in the brain. It's hugely complicated, but Warwick is clearly focussed. "If we are able to communicate brain to brain, we will be able to convey thoughts, emotions, sarcasm, a whole lot of things, " he says.

Many other experiments are also on. One involves growing a brain from a rat embryo, and then attaching it to a robot, thus effectively mating a technological body with a biological brain.

Warwick even looks at the possibility of conscious robots. "One definition of consciousness is putting enough number of interconnected brain cells. Going by that definition, we can have interconnected brain cells in a robot. So, we can have a conscious robot. It may be a silly question, but it can be asked why shouldn't a robot be allowed to vote, or even get married?"

He feels a link between the brain and a computer also opens up many possibilities. "Now we use external devices to store data. Maybe we can outsource memory by linking with devices. It might help in cases like dementia. The brain thinks of the world, that is space, in three dimensions. But space has many dimensions. Our brain can't understand that. It is stuck at three. Computers can deal with hundreds of dimensions. By linking our brain to a computer we might be able to understand the world better. "

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