Wednesday

23rd May 2018

Column / Health Matters

Are you forgetful? Outsource your memory to the cloud

  • “Cybernetics links biology and technology together," says Kevin Warwick, professor and deputy vice chancellor of Coventry University. (Photo: MedTech Europe)

Cybernetics and artificial intelligence have the potential to treat or cure neurological diseases, according to the world’s first cyborg.

For those who grew up on a diet of 1980s blockbuster movies, the mention of cyborgs evokes apocalyptic scenarios - the very survival of the human race was at stake and the chances of meeting one only existed on screen. But in the UK, cyborgs have existed since the 1990s.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Warwick was the first human being implanted with a microchip. (Photo: Lwp Kommunikáció)

Kevin Warwick, professor and deputy vice chancellor of Coventry University, was the world’s first 'cyborg'.

A term originated from the 1960s, used to describe enhanced human beings who could survive in extraterrestrial environments, "cyborg" now generally means a person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device.

Captain Cyborg

Warwick's nom de guerre “Captain Cyborg” came about in the mid 1990s when he was the first person implanted with a microchip. The microchip transmitted signals to a computer that controlled doors, lights, heaters, and other connected devices.

As a prolific self-experimenter, Warwick embodies both the old school of science and the modern. He was one of the first to understand the power of “sexy science” to promote public interest in complex research.

He is now at the forefront of ambitious research into cybernetics and artificial intelligence that has the potential to treat or cure neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Cybernetics links biology and technology together. I see this is the key area for healthcare; using technology to overcome problems with the nervous system,” said Warwick at the Medtech Forum in Brussels in December.

Warwick’s critics may argue that his experiments cross ethical boundaries. Yet his research has gained ethical approval because of the potential to treat or cure neurological diseases.

His self-implantation, for example, led to the development of a deep brain neural stimulator to control tremors caused by Parkinson’s. He also successfully induced basic learning in a robot controlled by a brain composed of neurons from rat brains.

Developments in medical technology have enabled repair and replacement of non-functioning or missing parts of the human body, for example joint replacements, artificial limbs, pacemakers and cochlear implants.

Warwick believes that people will become just as used to the repair and replace mentality for overcoming damage caused to the central nervous system by diseases.

Almost nine million EU citizens are diagnosed dementia patients, with many more suspected to be undiagnosed. The global cost of Alzheimer’s and dementia is estimated to be equivalent to 1% of the entire gross domestic product.

The potential to improve health through Warwick’s line of scientific enquiry is clear.

Improving human communication

Warwick believes that human communication does not do justice to the complexity of our feelings and thoughts. “You can be married to your partner for 40 years and sometimes still find yourself thinking ‘What on earth are you talking about?’”, he said in an interview.

Talking doesn’t pass muster for Captain Cyborg. He argues that transferring a complex thought or emotion into sound waves which are then reconstituted by the recipient often leads to misunderstanding.

What if you don’t even speak the same language? It was this belief that led to an implant being installed into Warwick’s brain to transmit his mood directly to his wife.

In the first experiment, Irena Warwick received the transmission via jewellery designed by the university’s art department which glowed different colours to show his mood; even when he wasn’t present in the room. “When it glowed to show excitement, the question arose what was I doing, and more importantly who was I doing it with?”

More recently, both Warwicks were implanted with the aim of one day creating a form of telepathy, like the Borg from the Star Trek franchise. Importantly, it has been established that interfering with his central nervous system in this manner did not negatively affect functionality and that the brain can adapt to the implant.

Ethical challenges

Ethics are a challenge to the European Union in setting health and research policy in this field. Differences in culture, ethics and religion mean that one size does not fit all.

The EU treaty affords the competence to adopt minimum standards but not to impose aspects relating to ethics on member states so that countries like Germany, with a more conservative viewpoint, are comfortable with what takes place on its own territory.

The brain is electrochemical and people are generally happy to alter the brain’s function by chemical means whether it’s an antidepressant drug or a strong coffee in the morning. So why the reticence about electric means of stimulation?

Human enhancement – which is improving the performance of otherwise healthy people – is a controversial subject among even the most ardent believers in medical technology.

Warwick’s ideas evokes fears and challenges sensibilities. He asserts that a forgetful person should be able to outsource their memory and save precious childhood recollections to the cloud in the future. When mentioned at the MedTech Forum, attended by health industry professionals, there were murmurs of shock and discontent.

One senses that the concern arises because the manipulation of human chemistry may be close to reaching its apex, whereas in the fields of cybernetics and robotics research has barely even begun.

People have seen cyborgs in the movies. Drama is more easily inspired by apocalyptic visions. But in the real world, it makes people uneasy because much of what makes us human is at stake.

Steve Bridges is an independent health policy adviser in Brussels. His Health Matters column takes a closer look at health-related policy issues and trends in the EU.

Europe's obesity battle, a haphazard reality

EU states are alarmed at the bulging waistlines of their citizens, but governments remain unwilling to commit to binding measures or an EU-wide approach to the problem.

Magazine

The stress hormone and EU garden cities

European town planners still borrow from the "garden city" ideals of the 19th century, but they might be doing more harm than good.

Magazine

Back to the Future by Hyperloop

Cars that run on petrol or diesel are meant to be a rarity by the year 2050. Progress is slow. But some Nordic cities have radical visions of how a "Hyperloop" could change that.

Putting the 'e' in e-health

The 'e' has become a familiar sight before words like book or commerce, while health has long been spared the token affix of the digital age. But now e-health has arrived and seems set to revolutionise traditional healthcare.

Column / Health Matters

The yin and yang of Chinese medicine

Can traditional Chinese medicine help the modern European patient? Malta thinks so, in a new agreement with China.

Feature

Nordic scientists warn Brussels over 'superbugs'

Superbugs already kill 25,000 Europeans each year, despite hospitals fighting to stop the antibiotic resistant bacteria from spreading. This week the Nordic Council lobbied Brussels to wake up.

Supported by

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  2. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and reconciliation is a process that takes decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  3. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  4. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  5. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  7. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  10. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up
  11. European Jewish CongressCalls on Brussels University to Revoke Decision to Honour Ken Loach
  12. Sustainable Energy Week 2018"Lead the Clean Energy Transition"- Register and Join Us in Brussels from 5 to 7 May

Latest News

  1. 'Killer robot' projects eligible for EU defence fund
  2. Funding for European values needs radical changes
  3. Feeble EU format deflates Zuckerberg 'hearing'
  4. Are EU data watchdogs staffed for GDPR?
  5. EU pessimistic on permanent US trade exemption
  6. US asks EU to go after Russian and African villains
  7. Facebook threatened with removal from EU-US data pact
  8. Defence firms 'reap benefits' of advice to EU

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU Green Week 2018Green Cities for a Greener Future. Join the Debate in Brussels from 22 to 24 May
  2. Nordic Council of Ministers12 Recommendations for Nordic Leadership on Climate and Environment
  3. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOxford Professor Calls for an End to the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  4. ACCAPeople Who Speak-Up Should Feel Safe to Do So
  5. Mission of China to the EUProgress on China-EU Cooperation
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWorld's Energy Ministers to Meet in Oresund in May to Discuss Green Energy
  7. ILGA EuropeParabéns! Portugal Votes to Respect the Rights of Trans and Intersex People
  8. Mission of China to the EUJobs, Energy, Steel: Government Work Report Sets China's Targets
  9. European Jewish CongressKantor Center Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide - The Year the Mask Came Off
  10. UNICEFCalls for the Protection of Children in the Gaza Strip
  11. Mission of China to the EUForeign Minister Wang Yi Highlights Importance of China-EU Relations
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersImmigration and Integration in the Nordic Region - Getting the Facts Straight

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMacedonians in Bulgaria Demand to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  2. Counter BalanceThe EIB Needs to Lead by Example on Tax Justice
  3. ILGA EuropeTrans People in Sweden to be Paid Compensation for Forced Sterilisation
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsThe Danger of Standing Up for Justice and Rights in Central Asia
  5. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Must Work Together to Promote Global Steel Sector
  6. Swedish EnterprisesEU Tax Proposal on Digital Services Causes Concern for Small Exporting Economies
  7. European Jewish CongressCondemns the Horrific Murder of Holocaust Survivor Mireille Knoll in Paris
  8. Mission of China to the EUAn Open China Will Foster a World-Class Business Environment
  9. ECR GroupAn Opportunity to Help Shape a Better Future for Europe
  10. Counter BalanceControversial Turkish Azerbaijani Gas Pipeline Gets Major EU Loan
  11. World VisionSyria’s Children ‘At Risk of Never Fully Recovering', New Study Finds
  12. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMeets with US Congress Member to Denounce Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations