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Subject Area: Electrical & Electronic Engineering
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Article citation: B.H.Rudall, (1999) "Cyber-humans", Kybernetes, Vol. 28 Iss: 1, pp. -
Experimental chip implant
A cybernetician and leading researcher, Professor Kevin Warwick, Department of Cybernetics, at Reading University, UK, claims to be the world's first Cyborg, that is, part human and part machine. He has had a silicon chip implanted in his forearm, which he says opens doors and switches on his computer, which greets him with a recorded message.
It means that as he moves around the department of cybernetics at his university the data encoded on the chip detects his position via sensors and displays it on any screen in the departmental network so that he can easily be found.
It is not suggested that this in itself is a great advance - the same effect could well be achieved perhaps if the chip was positioned anywhere on his person - but it does have the added bonus of dramatically publicising an important application of the use of such systems. In this context, for example, it could allow the chip to be programmed to inform the wearer of any relevant information stored on a networking computer system. Prompts could be sent out within a building quite easily to indicate that e-mails or any down-loaded information had been received and were awaiting attention. Diary prompts about meetings, engagements and any reminders could be transmitted to the implanted chip.
Professor Warwick had a chip which was sealed in a glass capsule about an inch long and a tenth of an inch in diameter, implanted under local anaesthetic by his own doctor. The implant was not, in this instance, kept indefinitely, but there are now techniques for the implanation of small chips under the skin for long-term operations.
In this case as Professor Warwick walks through the doors of his department a pulsed radio signal generates a current that activates the chip. This then transmits data which are picked up by the computer network in the building.
Professor Warwick says of his work:
I'm making a point. Cybernetics is all about human beings and technology interacting. In future, all buildings will have intelligence built into them. The idea of a man enhanced by a chip has been science fiction so far. Now it is science fact. In five years' time we will be able to do chips with all sorts of information on them. They could be used for money transfers, medical records, passports, driving licences, and loyalty cards, for example. And if they are implanted they are impossible to steal. The potential is enormous.
The potential for such innovative technology is, of course, too great to assess. It would appear that what is science fiction today is the reality of tomorrow. That the human can be part-machine and the machine part-human is apparently an achievable goal. This is well illustrated by the application in bionics, described in the next section.
Is it the world's first bionic arm?
A report from the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital, in Edinburgh, Scotland, describes how a bionic limb has been fitted to a man who lost his arm to cancer. He becomes, specialists at the hospital say, the first person in the world today to use a bionic limb.
The arm is fully flexible and is worth some £100,000. It has been designed to enable its recipient to carry out everyday tasks. This includes, it is claimed, the ability to tie his shoelaces.
The carbon fibre arm has the world's first motorised shoulder, rotating wrists and contracting fingers the developers say. It contains pressure sensors, imitation skin and a microchip that translates thought processes from the brain.
Electronic pulses travel through sensors to motors and gears that control the wrist, elbow and hand. Development of the arm has taken three years and the project team was lead by Dr David Gow. He said that one of their problems was that existing and currently available components needed for the development proved to be much too heavy. Technologists had the major task of reducing them to a size that would enable them to be fitted into the bionic device.
Development of cyber-humans
At a time when reports of hand transplants fill the media, such advances in bionics might well be overlooked, but their importance remains, because they illustrate the beginnings of the integration of humans and machines in a most realistic way.
These initiative are but some of the advances in both cyborgs and in bionics. The first experimental project from Professor Warwick publicises the real possibilities for the development of cyborgs, while the application from Edinburgh provides an example of the world's first bionic limb that is in everyday use. This provides us with an insight into the future relationships between humans and machines.
The cyber-human appears to be not just another concept that is discussed in cybernetics research but a recognisable reality. The new techniques for the implantation of chips in humans are but the first steps to the development of the new species of cyber-beings. We are, it would appear, now set to enter what was once the world of science fiction.