A Year Ago: Exploring the human-machine frontier

First published: Tue, 28 Dec 1999 07:00:00 GMT

In the 21st century computer and network technology will restore sight, relieve pain and even transmit our thoughts, scientists believe. And the beginnings are here today

Earlier this month scientists announced pioneering chip surgery that, if successful, will revolutionise the lives of thousands of people around the world.

Motown veteran Stevie Wonder, who has been blind since birth, is to undergo surgery to have a microchip inserted into his retina in an attempt to restore his sight. The aim of the microchip is to stimulate any of the retina cells that have not totally degenerated to start functioning again. Images will be fed to the chip from an external camera, mounted on a pair of spectacles, that focuses on an image and converts it into a series of electronic signals.

The operation will only bring about a partial restoration of vision at best, as cells that have completely degenerated will not function. Also, compared to an eye's several million receptors, the chip only has 25. However this implant operation illustrates the way that chips in the human body could improve the lives of many.

The 'wired man'

And that's just the beginning. Within two decades a new form of life will have evolved from artificially intelligent machines: That's the prediction from a recently published book, Predictions, from luminaries such as Arthur C Clarke and economist JK Galbraith. It predicts that humans will turn to genetics and computer implants in order to compete with these new uber-beings.

Even aside from such special cases as Stevie Wonder, the beginnings of such chip implant surgery are already with us. The thousands of us walking around with pacemakers or silicon implants are likely to joined by a new legion of those with surgically implanted microchips designed to make our lives simpler and more productive.

Peter Cochrane, chief technologist at BT Labs, is working on his idea of the "wired man" and examining what the potential of these combined communications will mean for humankind. Some of the more revolutionary areas he is considering include electronic pain relief modules for the spine and knee and an anti-epilepsy unit that simultaneously fires pulses into the left and right lobes of the brain.

Items such as these at present would necessitate a visit to a hospital where the memory bank of the unit would be downloaded and algorithms changed and modified. However Cochrane foresees a time when this would be done via a mobile phone or internal radio unit. So committed is Cochrane to the idea of a bionic man that he predicts that "the equivalent of a desktop computer could by worn in the arm or distributed around the body by the early part of the 21st century.

There are of course a lot more slightly prosaic uses for this new technology. Professor Kevin Warwick, head of the Cybernetics Department at Reading University is at the forefront of chip implants, last year becoming the first man to have a chip surgically implanted into his body. A one inch glass capsule containing an electromagnetic coil and a silicon chip was inserted into his arm.

The chip used a computerised voice to alert the professor when he had new emails as he walked into work in the morning. A year later he followed this up with a second chip implanted to determine whether a computer could follow his movements as he walked around. As he moved the chip intercepted the relevant brain signals and transmitted them to a computer which returned the signals to move his muscles.

Emotions on a chip

These early experiments led to the latest stage of the professor's work, one which he hopes will transform the drugs industry: the storage of human emotions on a computer. The idea that human emotions can be collected and stored as data may be frightening for many, blurring the boundaries between technological and human interaction.

But Warwick also believes that it will change the way humans solve emotional problems. The basic plan of the project is to download human emotions onto a computer and upload them back into the human nervous system, unlocking the potential to provide electronic mind-altering drugs on demand and transforming the way the drugs industry administers cures for depression and pain. The project is not due to begin for 18 months.

Warwick will have a silicon chip implanted under his skin to enable him to communicate with a PC. Electrical signals from his nervous system will travel via radio link to the computer and from the computer back to his nervous system. Warwick is confident that emotions can be isolated and recorded as a series of electrical signals. "There are signals that govern emotions. By sending these electronically to the brain it will affect how a person feels. When you are feeling happy those signals can be captured and sent to the computer to be reconstituted and sent back at a later stage," he says.

Warwick is not so certain as to what affects the signals will have on a person when they are sent back to the brain but is hopeful happy signals will generate happy feelings, et cetera. If the experiment is successful, Warwick believes there will be a revolution in the way we take drugs. "It will transform the drugs industry and get rid of depression, overcome pain, do all the things chemical drugs now do," he says.

Speculation that drugs could one day be available over the Internet may seem bizarre but Warwick sees no reason why not. "Computers are linked to a network which opens the possibility of transmitting happy signals down a computer and creating a whole new culture of cyberdrugs," he says. Once downloaded from the Net, these signals would be transmitted via a radio-linked computer directly to a person's brain, Warwick envisions.

Mapping the human

Cochrane, one of the most well-known advocates of chip implants, has followed the work of Warwick closely and describes him as a "brave experimenter". He is not convinced technology is yet sophisticated enough for such an experiment to work in the short term. "My guess is it is probably too early. Emotions are more chemical than electrical but it will be an interesting experiment," he says.

Within 50 years, Cochrane predicts downloading thoughts and emotions will be commonplace. "We will be able to decode how the human brain works and pinpoint where things are stored. The human genome project gives us the building blocks and scanner technology currently being developed is mapping what is going on in the brain," he says.

Cochrane believes scientists should not underestimate the complexity of decoding the human brain and that ultimately it will be computers that do the work. "People have not got a blind clue how difficult it is going to be but by 2010 we will have computers that are smarter than you and I. We will need such machines to understand how the human brain works," he says.

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