Famous for his work in cybernetics, Kevin Warwick is also breathing new life into the public understanding of science and technology. Words and photography by Nick Smith
‘I find it amazing that you can have top engineers, academics and CEOs working in the field of technology, that can go through their entire careers and never have their work appear on the TV news.’ Meet Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, perhaps better known to the public as the man who modifies his body with electronic implants. From the very start of the interview he doesn’t mince his words and he warms to his theme.
‘Are you seriously telling me that they’ve never done one thing in their life that is sufficiently attractive to the BBC that they can’t feature it on the TV for one minute?’ If that is true, says an incredulous Warwick, they should be ashamed of themselves and ask what on earth they’ve been doing with their time. I put it to the professor that as a journalist I know that some of these people are doing brilliant things: it’s just that the commissioning editors at the BBC and in the broadsheet newspapers are either not interested or haven’t been informed.
He concedes that there might be a mutuality here, but insists that the burden of responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the technologists. ‘Yes, we can complain about the programme producers not showing interest. But, I’m talking about the way it is, and I think it’s up to us to do something about it. I think engineers should be out there selling their wares to the media, and if they haven’t got anything to sell, then shame on them.’
We’re sitting in Warwick’s office in the School of Systems Engineering, an upstairs room longer than it is wide. Office is perhaps too strong a word for what might be better described as a rabbit hutch. But it is one of the most fascinating rabbit hutches you’re ever likely to visit. This is not because of the intimidating piles of academic paperwork, but because there are bits of robots strewn everywhere, which, as I later discover, he’s only too pleased to demonstrate.
For Warwick, technical innovation is a thread that is woven into the fabric of society and it’s his view that this should be reflected in society’s popular media. True to his own work ethic, Warwick’s new book – ‘Artificial Intelligence: The Basics’ – does just that, and is about to find its way into high street bookshops. He describes its contents as ‘a concise introduction to the fast moving world of AI. It explores issues at the heart of the subject and in particular it introduces for the first time biological brains as being part of the AI field. It also debunks some of the philosophical myths surrounding the topic.’
Rise of the robots
Kevin Warwick is a leading thinker on how the future will look and his areas are artificial intelligence, cybernetics and robotics. His most famous piece of research – Project Cyborg – projected him into the limelight in the late 1990s, when he implanted a computer chip into his nervous system that could record and read his emotions and experiences. He has been working on using intelligent computer methods to predict the onset of Parkinson’s disease, so that it can be prevented by means of a deep-brain implant. His rat-brain robot – using artificially grown rat-brain tissue – drives a robot round a laboratory which helps us understand more about how our brains work, and even to develop treatments for diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Warwick was born in 1954 in Coventry and he attended Lawrence Sheriff School in Warwickshire. He left school in 1970 to join the GPO (later British Telecom) at the age of 16. In his twenties he took a degree at Aston University, followed by a PhD and a research post at Imperial College London. He took up the Chair in Cybernetics at the University of Reading in 1987.
One of the criticisms Warwick frequently faces is that his work in cybernetics is somehow ‘scary’ or, even worse, ‘fringe’. I ask him how comfortable he is with these adjectives. Warwick leans back in his chair as a wry smile spreads across his face. ‘I think some of what I do is scary to some people. This is partly because I’m picking things out of science fiction, but it’s also because I’m pushing the boundaries a little bit. Which is what I like to do.’
As for ‘fringe’, Warwick thinks the term can be positive as well as a negative, making the point that it’s hard to push boundaries from the mainstream. It’s also seen as threatening because Warwick’s work blurs the lines between previously compartmentalised ideas of philosophy, electronics and biology. Warwick says that most academics are in their comfort zone when working in these discrete disciplines: ‘But they don’t like it all coming together.’
And they’re not too keen either on the way he delivers his ideas to the public, refusing to talk in academic or scientific jargon. ‘Why should I? The reason I get asked to do a lot of plenary presentations at very good conferences is because I can talk in a very broad way.’ He admits that this all-encompassing approach to language can raise questions among his peers, but if it bothers him, he’s very good at disguising it: ‘half the time you go to these things and listen to someone talking about their specific field in the specific language of that field, and even if you can understand it, you can end up half bored to death.’
And of course they’re not keen on an academic scientist having a parallel alter ego as a high profile advocate for the public understanding of science. Some are just plain jealous that Warwick’s is a jet-setting international career that puts him on TV chat shows and into the pages of Esquire. ‘Of course people can get a bit envious. But in my defence, I think I do all right at the academic stuff. People might think that because I comment in the media that I don’t pay much attention to the straight-down-the-line academic work, but that’s not the case. People just don’t like the idea that you can popularise something that’s complicated.’
Public understanding of science
With mass media exposure of science and technology limited to Formula One, aeroplane crashes and nuclear power station disasters, the sector needs more ambassadors than ever. ‘I feel there are two important things here,’ says Warwick. ‘First the research we do and the results we obtain here are very important to me. The other is the potential to inspire youngsters and get them excited about what they could do. It’s a really nice feeling to think you may have influenced people’s decisions about their careers.’
Or influenced their opinions in controversial areas such as bioethics. ‘This is an area that’s frequently manipulated by the media, and so it’s important that you get out there and meet with the bioethicists, find out what they’re thinking, find out what the consensus is.’ Warwick says that if you can then communicate these issues to the public at large in a digestible way, then the conversations down in the local pub will be that much more informed. ‘Without people working for the public understanding of science the work of IET members and fellows simply won’t get seen. Does the man in the street know how a transistor works? Probably not. If you can communicate such a concept in a straightforward way you have achieved something very important.’
Warwick uses his first implant as an example of how the public can be exposed to technology. While his technologically literate critics were scoffing at the comparative mundanity Captain Cyborg’s RFID implant, ‘this was probably the first time the man in the street had ever encountered a radio frequency identification device. The term today is perhaps more familiar than it once was. But how does it work? In my presentations I try to explain. And what I do is very much the same as what Michael Faraday was doing with a coil of wire and electric current. If can try to get people to understand some of the fundamentals of what we do as scientists and engineers, then perhaps they won’t be so scared of it and will be able to come up with their own ethical position.’ Warwick says that this enables people to decide whether they like the idea of the human body being modified in this way or not.
For Warwick the role of the engineer cannot be underestimated. He says that in the next few years ‘one of the biggest challenges, one of the most profound changes in society’, will be the way that power is transmitted. ‘A century ago, Nikola Tesla pointed to the possibility of power being transmitted without wires. When we first wanted to talk to each other over distance there were wires everywhere and then it went wireless. I believe that in the next few years power will be transmitted without wires. It is going to completely change the world.’
In particular the way we generate power will have a profound effect on our transport priorities. Warwick describes how entire economies have been held in thrall by the oil producing and exporting countries in the Middle East. And he describes how this will change: ‘who the hell needs petrol where we’re going? We’re coming to the stage where electrical engineers will become the people in demand. How will people get around in the future? It will be electrical engineers moving them around, not the petrochemical people. Now this is an exciting change but it’s not going to happen unless people get involved and people buy into it. I mean, we don’t want to go around electrocuting people. If we’re going to be driving around picking up electricity as we go, we have to be completely sure we know what we’re doing and it needs to be done in a way that works.’
I mention to Warwick that there are projected skills shortage in the power sector and that by the year 2020, if things follow trends as they are currently predicted, there won’t be enough engineers to supply the UK nuclear power generation sector alone. ‘Exactly. We better start spreading the word.’
Sidebar: What is life? It’s all in a telephone exchange
In his teens Kevin Warwick owned several motorcycles that he used to race around at ‘ridiculous speeds.’ For the young Warwick, this was the universe in one machine: ‘when you think about it, there are the electrical and hydraulic systems, pneumatics, fuel and the whole mechanical side of it. If you can understand how a motorcycle works you probably know eighty per cent of all you need to know in science, quite possibly life.’
Although this statement is obviously intended to be humorous, machines are a vital part of Warwick’s life and his early encounters with engineered systems led him directly to where he is today. He has never forgotten his first encounter with an old-fashioned 1970s-style telephone exchange. ‘When I first saw them they looked so complicated. But you find out that they’re actually straightforward when you break them down into their parts. And to me, this is the same as the human brain. When you think about it neurons aren’t that hard to understand.’
One of his first controversial episodes was while at university undertaking a complementary studies assignment. Warwick chose to do his on extra-terrestrial life and part of the project was to define life in order to identify alien life forms. ‘So I said ok how are you defining life here? Does it have movement, growth, and all the other classic indicators? Well if it does, you’ve actually defined a telephone exchange. And so if ET comes to Earth and looks at a telephone exchange it will say that it’s alive.’ Warwick was told not to be so silly and this bothered him ‘no end.’
Warwick insists that in order to nail down what intelligence in machines is, you must remove the human-centric bias, and having removed this bias he was left with a system that was intelligent life as originally defined. ‘I know that you’re supposed to ask if it can tell a joke, but I don’t see what that’s got to do with anything. And another thing I found ridiculous was the way people kept changing and tweaking the definition just because they were uncomfortable with the answer.’
‘If you imagine that aliens come to Earth from outer space the first thing to consider is that they’ve got here. They’ve got to be pretty intelligent to have devised a means of getting here in the first place. So how can we tell them that they’re stupid because they don’t understand jokes or English? They’re not going to say ‘yeah, you’re right we better go home.’ They’ll probably blow the hell out of us, or if we’re lucky they’ll put us in prison camps, because you can be sure they will have come here specifically to get energy and other resources, if we’ve got any left. When Europeans first went to the Americas they had technology and diseases and they wiped the floor with the indigenous people, even though they perhaps had better culture.’
Warwick says that when machines become more intellectually powerful than humans we won’t be able to understand how they are thinking. ‘They probably won’t treat us very well, and so upgrading,’ says Warwick referring to his implant work, ‘is one possibility for staying in the frame. We won’t like being second to machines.’ So why don’t we just switch them off? ‘How can you switch it off? You can’t. Also, if your aliens were sufficiently alien they may well think that the internet was the most advanced life form on earth and that humans are mere drones. And they’d probably be right.’
Sidebar: Kevin Warwick on electronic medicine
‘Ethically, I imagine that people have no objection to my work on the frontiers of making life better for people with Alzheimer’s disease. But when it comes to using that same technology in other parts of the brain, we start to push the boundaries of what it means to be human. So, even something that looks okay on the surface – because it’s therapeutic and you’re working with surgeons – raises many questions because you can corrupt the signals that are going into somebody’s brain.
‘We’ve been putting chemicals into our brains for 5,000 years. But the brain is electrochemical, just as in the way a battery is. We have historically produced medicine that is largely chemical: you have a headache, you take an aspirin. But there are enormous opportunities for electronic medicine. There is an enormous potential for altering how the brain and the nervous system that we haven’t really started to look deeply into.
‘And there are enormous questions that go with that. With the Parkinson’s disease work there are signals that can be corrupted externally. Just as you can take the wrong chemicals, you can feed in the wrong signals and so it’s a huge ethical area. And we’ve only just started to look at this.’
‘Artificial Intelligence: The Basics’, by Kevin Warwick is published by Routledge in August 2011, £11.99, ISBN 978-0-415-56483-0
This article first appeared in the Summer edition of the IET’s magazine ‘Member News’