Smart chips get under our skin Pt II

Privacy versus benefits to human understanding

For cybernetic enthusiasts such as Professor Kevin Warwick, head of cybernetics at Reading University, and Peter Cochrane, ex-chief technologist at BT, the worries about privacy take second place to the benefits to human understanding.

Within 50 years, downloading thoughts and emotions will be commonplace, Cochrane has famously predicted. While this may sound far-fetched, remember that scientists are well on the way to mapping the building blocks of what it is to be human via the Human Genome Project, which is due to complete in 2003. Cochrane believes smarter than-human-computers -- which he thinks will be reality within ten years -- will be able to interpret the information available from the project and use it to understand how the human brain works.

Warwick is perhaps one of the UK's most best-known cyberenthusiasts and certainly practises what he preaches. Warwick has chip implants that allow him to open doors and operate his PC remotely. He is currently taking part in an experiment attempting to download human emotions onto a PC.

The idea that human emotions can be collected and stored as data is unappealing to many, reducing as it does the complexities of our emotional responses to a series of electrical impulses (which actually is not that far removed from the physiological process of the brain). In the medical arena implanted chips could play a very important role in creating cures.

In 1998, scientists at Emory University in the US developed brain implants which could be controlled by the power of thought. Each implant, made of cone-shaped glass, contained an electrode to pick up impulses from nerve endings. It is hoped the development will one day allow paralysed patients to control artificial limbs.

In 1999, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced a breakthrough method of storing chemicals on microprocessors, creating a "pharmacy-on-a-chip" which could one day replace painful injections, difficult-to-swallow pills and provide medicines for patients unable to follow a regimen of use.

Professor John Santini has been involved in the lab-on-a-chip project since its inception and believes the power of embedded chips to do good outweighs any negatives. "We are focused strictly on the therapeutic, to deliver drugs in a better way and to treat diseases that are currently untreatable. The feedback that we have had so far from the public has been very positive. People can see that we are trying to do something for the good," he says.

It is anticipated that 98 percent of the human body will have the potential to be replaced by machines by 2025 and Pearson believes that within ten to 15 years all people with medical needs or disabilities will function with the help of some sort of implanted chip.

Is this the dawn of a new cyborg era for mankind? Is it not that most sacred of organs, the brain, that provides man with his uniqueness? Shouldn't it follow then that the brain should never be influenced by a computer?

But already work has begun on implanted chips that could be used to treat psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and psychosis. For a society currently wrestling with how to care for mentally disturbed patients, ideas like MIT's lab-on-a-chip could prove hugely valuable. Patients would no longer be responsible for taking vital medicines, as it would all be controlled remotely.

Santini believes there is no conceptual reason why the lab-on-a-chip idea could not be extended to the treatment of psychiatric patients, but points out that a great deal of political work, particularly on the ethical side, would have to go on before it was possible. "Parliamentary procedures would have to be in place to make sure the technology was used properly and respected individuals' health and rights," he says.

The question of computers interfering with or modifying higher brain function, thus altering behaviour, raises important and fundamental ethical issues about where the machine ends and the human being begins.

Myers is not fazed by the idea of chips altering personality. "I don't see it as any different morally or ethically than drugs which do the same thing," he argues. BT's Pearson agrees: "I had screws inserted in my legs and I didn't feel any less human. Some people have ear or eye implants and there are lots of people running about who are partially bionic. It is not an enormous ethical issue, as I don't believe it dehumanises us," he says.

While it would seem people are unfazed by the threat to humanity of relying more and more on chips and machines to run our bodies, the privacy threat is not about to go away. Interestingly, while sci-fi has focused on how governments and authorities will use chips to curtail our freedoms, Pearson is bothered by a more mundane threat.

"You could have a scenario where insurance companies refuse to insure you unless you agree to have a chip implant to monitor the level of physical activity you do," he says.

As with so much in the globalised, corporate world, it is big business that remains the real threat to a technology that has the potential to improve our lives in ways we cannot yet even dream of.

Take me back to Pt I/ Smart chips get under our skin.

In ZDNet's Artificial Intelligence Special ZDNet charts the road to sentience, examines the technologies that will take us from sci-fi to sci-fact, and asks if machines should have rights.

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