Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I cyborg...Kevin Warwick and Stelarc

Last year I read I, cyborg by Kevin Warwick, published by the University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago in 2002. I was interested in whether there were affinities between Warwick's project and some of Stelarc's. I am aware that there is much research to do here, but offer the following as some preliminary ideas.

In 1998 Professor Kevin Warwick, British scientist and Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading in England, underwent an operation to have a silicon chip transponder surgically implanted into his forearm. This experiment allowed a computer to monitor Warwick as he moved through halls and offices of the Department of Cybernetics at the University, using a unique identifying signal emitted by the implanted chip. He could operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger.

Warwick explains:

In Spring 1998, the building was being wired up so that at different points the central computer could detect the presence, at a certain time, or devices such as the radio-frequency identification device (RFID) the Cybernetics lab at Reading we had in our possession a relatively small radio-frequency identification device (RFID) in a small glass capsule, which, under certain circumstances, might be used as an implant. (63)
Strangely enough the program they intended to use was supposed to  'emit the code 666, which…is the mark of the beast from the 'Book of Revelation' in the Bible. For some reason, though, when 666 was tried nothing worked. The code for the implant was therefore changed to 161. (78)

After a local anaesthetic, the surgeon, George Boulos ‘...burrowed a hole...through the fascia, the outer layer of the skin, down to the muscle’ (80). The implant was pushed into then stitched into place, so that it wouldn’t migrate to another part of Warwick’s body. It enabled Warwick to open doors and switch on and off lights in the laboratory. After this experiment he decided to become more cybernetic by having his nervous system connected to a computer via electrodes implanted into the median nerve in his arm.

According to Warwick the only thing that had been done that was remotely similar to what they were doing was the work of the artist Eduardo Kac who  'barcoded his ankle and read himself into the Internet to symbolize the human race being captive to technology’ (76). He maintained
Stelarc uses a technique called functional electrical simulation (FES) by means of surface electrodes. The same method is used to improve the quality of life of spinal-cord injured subjects, so that they can live a more independent, everyday life. (107)
It was found that the external stimulation method using electrodes on the skin surface, as in Stelarc’s case, didn’t provide the necessary precision for stimulating the individual muscles to grip and hold objects. Implants are therefore required for the accuracy necessary to achieve the coordinated movements for grasp and lift (117).
He was of course referring to some of Stelarc's earlier work with his Third Hand and muscle stimulation performances.  Warwick concluded, in terms of his own project that ‘An FES system, externally connected, such as that used by Stelarc would not get us very far as it would only allow for muscle stimulation’ (122). He said the main difference between the 1998 implant and the new experiment,
...was the connection that would be made with the nervous system, most likely using the Utah array. The main body of the implant would be a radio transmitter/receiver to send the signals from my nervous system by radio to the computer and to receive signals sent, again by radio, from the computer and play them on to my nervous system via my arm. (131)
A micro electrode array consisting of 100 individual electrodes was implanted into his median nerve.This technique would provide highly selective recording and stimulation of sensory and/or motor neurons with the nerve fascicles. (183)

Peter Teddy, the neurosurgeon who undertook Warwick’s second implant made an incision approximately two inches long below Warwick’s wrist. He inserted a bodger which tunneled up Warwick’s inner arm through the incision. This enabled the micro electrode array, with attached wires to be inserted. This implant enabled Warwick to change the colors on a computer monitor by moving his fingers. By flexing and closing his hand, he was able to directly affect the movements of Peter Kyberd’s articulated, metallic hand, which they had also connected to the computer. Warwick said that they had witnessed the first experiment to prove that the array in his median nerve was capable of transferring the signals from his brain to a computer and then on to a robot. He also managed to move a Lego robot with signals converted from his median nerve into infra-red signals into the computer, control the movements of a wheelchair and achieve a ’…direct electronic connection between his ’nervous system in New York and the Madlab in Reading’, via the Kyberd hand. (257) He explains:
As I closed my hand, we could see the hand in Reading follow my own movements exactly, with a slight time delay due to the distance involved; when I opened my hand, the articulated hand followed suit…We had shown how signals from my brain could be transmitted around the world, via the Internet, to operate a piece of technology...with the visual feedback received, I could control the technology as desired.(258)
Other experiments included changing the colors on a necklace devised by his wife Irena. Eventually Irena and Kevin decided that they would like their nervous systems to be connected to one another via electrodes and a computer. Needles half a millimeter in diameter and just over three centimeters in length, made of a composite of platinum and iridium, were inserted into Irena’s median nerve. They achieved the first direct nervous system to nervous system communication in June 2002. Warwick describes the event in this way:
After a period where Iain adjusted the tolerances that were being measured by the computer, we reached the stage where, when Irena closed her hand, a green light flashed on to the screen, and when her hand was open, the light changed to red. So we now had signals traveling from Irena’s brain, via her nervous system and the electrode, to the PC, which changed the light when she moved her hand. At another bench in the lab we were able to send a signal from a different PC through the stimulator unit, via the interface card on the gauntlet, down to the array, on to my nervous system and up to my brain. (281)
The differences between Warwick’s project and Stelarc’s various project are manifold. Whereas Stelarc uses current developments in technology to modify the human body in an aesthetic way, Warwick is interested in how technology will upgrade the human. Influenced by Hans Moravic’s ideas about uploading the human brain into silicon, expressed in his book Mind Children (1988) Warwick said:

As a result of the experiments carried out I have no doubts in my own mind that, by direct brain implants, it will be possible to upgrade the intellectual capabilities of humans, by turning them into cyborgs. Extra memory, clip-on maths abilities and multi-dimensional processing would all appear to be there for the taking, as indeed are numerous extra-sensory powers...When linked to the network, a cyborg has the potential for an intelligence way beyond that of a stand-alone human. (295)
Stelarc’s Ear on Arm may be compared to Warwick’s Cyborg 2.0 project because both are concerned with technological augmentation of the human body in order to expand human communication. However the primary difference is that Stelarc's extra ear, a construct that was implanted under the skin is mostly human, cells and skin, whereas Warwick's implant was solely technological.  Although Stelarc intended the Ear on Arm to be capable of being connected to blue tooth, wireless technology, it remains an incomplete shell awaiting some form of electronic connection. Warwick and Stelarc are similar in their philosophy, since both believe that humanity needs to incorporate technology into the body in order to enhance its capabilities, or if not that, then so that technology won't surpass the human. 'There is no way I want to stay a mere human' says Warwick. Both may be considered transhumanist, since transhumanism proposes the idea of an augmented, enhanced human enacting a kind of Nietzschean prophecy of the superman, a human that not only embraces but encourages technological development to enable greater human capabilities and possibilities for permanent physical and mental enhancement. Founded by Nick Bostrom and David Pearce in 1998, the manifesto of transhumanism advocates:
The moral right for those who so wish to use technology to extend their mental and physical (including reproductive) capacities and to improve their control over their own lives. We seek personal growth beyond our current biological limitations.
On the World Transhumanists’ website, under the banner of The Better Humans Newsletter, an article declares that James Watson, the person who along with Francis Crick discovered the shape of DNA in 1953, said, ‘Going for perfection was something I always thought you should do’ (Better humans Staff, 2002).  More recently the notion that technology could be used to create a more perfect, superior human being is echoed in Krishna R. Dronamraju’s statement:
Instead of merely developing technologies to correct or prevent genetic defects in human populations, one can go beyond such methods to higher goals of improving existing qualities such as intelligence, musical abilities and physical strength, etc. Furthermore, it may even be possible by applying redemptive technology to create whole new beings of ‘superior’ quality or add on new organs with multiple functions  (1998. Biological and Social Issues in Biotechnology Sharing, Aldershot, Brookfield, USA, England, Singapore, Sydney: Ashgate Publishers, p.153).
We might ask: Who would decide which human beings would be chosen to be more intelligent and physically stronger and why are these characteristics are so important as opposed to others such as the ability to be empathetic or kind, and to whom do we owe this philosophical legacy?


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