Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, recently spoke to BCS Multimedia Editor, Justin Richards, about his work on cybernetics and artificial intelligence.

What are the ethical issues of cybernetics?

I think, ethically, at the moment, there are questions about cybernetics and cyborgs, of humans and technology coming together. For people with disabilities, that are helped therapeutically, it’s probably not too many questions. If you can help somebody with Parkinson’s disease, whatever the problem is, we should do it clearly, but the same technology can be used by people for enhancement and this is where, at the moment, maybe there are questions in some minds. Particularly, take myself, and I enhance my abilities, my intellectual abilities, then maybe that puts me quite a bit ahead of other people. 

Now everyone else who has implants and links with technology will also be enhanced so this group of cyborgs probably don’t have a problem at all. We’re all enhanced, so what. But there might be other people who still want to stay, if you like as some sort of sub species of humanity, they don’t want to change, they might have an ethical problem with it. So I think the immediate ethical big picture is about who is happy with technological progress in this way or who is not. History has always said we’ll move ahead with the technology and if some people get left behind, so be it.

What would you say have been the biggest technological changes in technology in your own field within the last five to 10 years?

I think what we’ve seen, in my own field, which is looking at implants and is actually putting in nervous systems and brains, but this is more of an experimental one. The last implant that I had I was the first human to have a ‘brain gate’ implant. Now there are about four or five people that have had a similar implant in their brain, being able to control a robot hand just from their brain signals to get feedback from the hand as well. So I think it is more of an experimental one which has changed people’s minds to say ‘hey this is possible’. Technically we can put an implant in a human brain, it can directly control technology that can help people, but it can also take us forward.

What are your predictions for technology, moving forward?

A range of predictions... First of all if I take the Turing Test, which is machines fooling you into thinking they’re human. I can’t see it being very long before a machine or a number of machines pass the Turing Test as Turing defined it. I think in the next year or two we will see that happen and it will be a step on in artificial intelligence. Now communication from a machine means that you can’t tell the difference, you don’t know because machines are so good in that way. 

In terms of implants helping people, I think maybe within 10 years we may see neurological problems like schizophrenia being tackled technically, and I say that not just using a piece of technology with electronic signals, but also using artificial intelligence so effectively that you are putting the power of a computer to analyse the signals in real-time in the person’s brain and to apply counteracting signals into the person’s brain in real-time to overcome the neurological problem.

I think we are going to see that, so it’s almost like putting artificial intelligence inside the person’s head to counteract problems that there are of a neurological nature, the same thing could be true with someone with depression and so on, so I see a new area of medical treatment with computer technology very central as a treatment.

Do you think the interface between IT and humans has developed in the ways predicted by science fiction writers over the years or has it gone off on a serious tangent?

Science fiction writers and scientists have often come up with quite accurate predictions. Karel Čapek predicted nuclear weapons, we had Jules Verne predicting people landing on the moon. Even if we take Alan Turing, more of a Scientist, and he was looking at how machines are going to be able to communicate and so on. I think the big thing that people didn’t seem to point out was networking and the internet and how powerful that has been, and is, and is continuing to be and how that changes humans, as we see with the social networking side of things now and it changes all sorts of different things.

I used to work for British Telecom many years ago and this, I guess, was during the late 70s, which is not that long ago. There was this thing called mobile phones or cell phones, which was a research thing at that time and we were told ‘well it’s a research thing, but practically it will never happen because there are all sorts of problems with it and would require masts put all over the country; no one’s ever going to want that!

Clearly we have gone from that within a relatively short space of time to everybody must have something like it; you’ve got to have one, why haven’t you got your cell phone on? Nowadays you’ve got to have one with you and it’s there as part of you almost, which is what it’s going to become. So I think networking has been a critical thing. I don’t see that it was predicted by science fiction or scientists even, say 40 years ago, and it has completely changed how we are and how we interact.

Do you think artificial intelligence will ever be at a level where robots or androids will co-exist with humans?

I think, when we look at artificial intelligence, it’s a very broad area and one project that I’m involved with takes brain cells, it can be human brain cells, and puts them into a robot body and the number of brain cells is, at the moment, technically limited to maybe 150,000, but in future, potentially there could be many more. So there you have one form of artificial intelligence; a soft form, where we can actually build brains. We can make them and put them into robot bodies and I can certainly see something like that co-existing in some way.

But if we look at artificial intelligence in terms of a computer system then it already has many advantages. The mathematical abilities, the memory functions, the speed and power of communication are already far better than those in the human brain and, hence if we look at using those advantages in a robot body, then potentially it could be something like ‘I Robot’ where you’ve got humans and robot technology. They don’t have to look like humans or Arnold Schwarzenegger they can look like pieces of technology as most technology does, but certainly can and probably does interact like they do interact even now. How much they are going to move around like humans and have arms and legs, like humans, well we’ll see. 

In some circumstances it’s useful if you want a friend around the home or a child wants a play friend, so there’s possibilities there, but I think many pieces of artificial intelligence technology co-exists with humans right now and I guess the big question is if that artificial intelligence becomes much more powerful and if it has the capabilities to do something that you don’t want it to do, will we allow the machines to do that? I think we probably will without realising it, would defer to the IA more and more and create something of a problem.

In Japan, a lot of Japanese scientists have been looking at robots as Carers in people’s homes to take some of the strain away, to help with healthcare. Can you see that happening more and more in the UK?

I think definitely in the western world, the UK included, we have a growing number of older people, proportionately, and a falling number of younger people to do work to keep older people living. So one obvious way to go is to put robots in the home in one form or another, more technology to help with memory systems that old people might have problems with, to fetch and carry, to lift, and all sorts of things, just around the home. I think we are going to see more of that no question. 

Very often the older person may have a bit of money to spend on the latest system. So as we do that the technology will develop more and more and you have to develop physically in terms of moving around the home and in terms of interaction and communication. It will need to know what the person wants exactly and to learn and adapt so aII technology is part of that and I certainly see that being an enormous area of growth in the next 10 – 20 years.

What’s next, what do you perceive as being your biggest challenges going forward?

I’ve got three challenges at the moment. One is what we call a rat brain robot, where we are integrating human brain cells into the robot body and getting it to learn and adapt and we communicate with it. We want to communicate with this robot that has a brain with human brain cells. At the same time we’re working with the Radcliffe Hospital. Tipu Aziz, a Neurological Surgeon there, is trying to help people with Parkinson’s disease and is using artificial intelligence to understand what Parkinson’s' disease is about. 

At the present time, with the results we’re getting, it looks as though there may be different types of Parkinson’s disease and if we can really understand that more, then maybe people will be able to be treated in different ways, ways that are more specific, if you like, to their need. That is the direct application of artificial intelligence to help people who have a problem.

I think the biggest thing for me is, where I do see brain-to-brain communication as a realistic way forward for us to communicate, we still need to carry out the first experiment. We need to actually send signals from brain-to-brain and I would very much like to be part of that, which means having to have a brain implant.

My wife has had an implant in her nervous system, but she does see brain implants as being quite dangerous so she’s not keen herself to be involved, but she knows that I am pretty determined about it so I think she will have to put up with it, and will be there, hopefully, to support me. If it goes right then we’ve not got a problem.

Talking about Parkinson’s and senility; can we find a cure for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease through AI and your own work?

I think if we look at things like Parkinson’s disease, dementia, strokes, where now with more people getting older we’re seeing more prevalence of these problems. There are a number of ways we can tackle this. We can see, with deep brain stimulation that we can use electronics to counteract the effects of Parkinson’s disease, and depression and so on, but we have the possibility that by using art intelligence with the technology we can actually improve the situation by understanding the diseases a little bit more and applying the appropriate signals.

With what we are doing with our rat brain robot project, we’re looking at seeing how neuron pathways develop learning to the extent that if we can apply a few extra brain cells, or even a few stem cells, that are trained to retain the memories, and hopefully we can use the same approach with human brains in the future so it may well be that as we go into the future, for something like dementia, you will be able to have some brain cells, fresh brain cells, to freshen up how your brain is operating or even small silicon cells that operate in the same way.

So I think we’re going to see much more technology to help various neurological problems in the future.

How would you like to be remembered?

I think, ultimately, the thing that gives me most joy is working with the surgeons at the Radcliffe Hospital and if I could be remembered for helping a bit with problems such as Parkinson’s disease, to develop the technology so that it’s helped some people, even if it’s just given some people hope that things will be better in the future. But I think, scientifically, the thing that I am happiest or proudest about was the first nervous system-to-nervous system communication that we actually made happen. To me, that’s the basis for thought communication and we actually did it first and we did it in the UK and you can do things like that here.