Column / Health Matters
Are you forgetful? Outsource your memory to the cloud
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.
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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.
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.
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.