Image: Warwick
In a picture taken before his latest implant, University of Reading Professor Kevin Warwick plays with his robotic cat, Hissing Sid.
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msnbc.com

The British professor who had himself “hot-wired” four years ago to test the frontier between man and machine has done it again: This month, after years of preparation, Kevin Warwick had a chip implanted in his wrist that will let him hack into the neural code that transmits sensations and moves his muscles.

The University of Reading cybernetics professor believes his experiments could lead to prosthetic limbs almost as responsive as the real things, new hope for paraplegics, and even new senses such as the batlike ability to sense ultrasound and find your way through total darkness.

But when you get right down to it, Warwick confesses that he’s not at all sure how the experiments will turn out.

“At this stage, we don’t really know — are we going to be successful or not?” Warwick told MSNBC.com Friday in a telephone interview from his home in England. “My gut reaction is, yeah.”

Warwick’s aim is to blend electronic circuitry with the body’s nervous system to create what he calls a “cyborg.” By using himself as a cyborgian guinea pig, he is boldly going where no experimenter has gone before. No experimenter, that is, except himself.

From cyborg 1.0 to 2.0
The silicon chip transponder that was implanted in Warwick’s left arm for nine days in 1998 told a computer at the university where the professor was so that it could open doors and turn on lights in his path, and even greet him at the door with a synthesized “hello.”

That alone was spooky enough. But the chip installed on March 14 raises the stakes dramatically.

This time, a tiny 100-pin array of microelectrodes is hooked up to fibers in the left arm’s median nerve, which courses between the brain and the hand, thumb and fingers. A radio transponder taps into the implanted circuitry, transmitting electrical impulses between the chip and a laboratory computer.

Theoretically, the computer should be able to identify the pattern of nerve firings produced when Warwick’s thumb is pricked, or when he dips his hand in hot or cold water, or when he wiggles his fingers.

The computer can also send impulses to the chip to stimulate specific nerve fibers. If the computer mimics the electrical pattern associated with a pinprick, will Warwick feel pain? If it sends the same series of impulses that are generated when Warwick moves his finger, will that finger twitch involuntarily? And what would “involuntarily” mean in that context?

“When we start putting signals in, maybe that affects things — maybe mentally,” Warwick mused. “What will my brain make of that? Maybe my brain can’t cope with it.”

Feeling the zings
But that’s weeks away. For now, Warwick is just trying to make sure that the chip has settled in as part of his nervous system. The stitches are due to come out Monday, and so far “everything’s looking very good,” he said.

“Every day I get two or three — I don’t know how to describe it — zings going down my finger or down my thumb,” he said. “I think it’s the pins settling down.”

The first experiments are scheduled to begin Wednesday, with Warwick’s research team gathering data about the patterns associated with sensory stimuli.

“It really will be very basic: Move a finger, see what happens. Make a pinprick, see what happens. ... It’ll be a fairly tedious, fairly laborious day,” he said.

Warwick noted that such experiments have been conducted on animals, but they’ve focused on the activity of motor nerves rather than sensory nerves. To study sensory signals, you’d have to correlate the electrical patterns with the experimental subject’s perception, which is “impossible to get with animals,” Warwick said.

If Warwick and his colleagues are successful, a paralyzed limb could be wired up to flex when a person thinks of flexing it, just like a real limb does. Just as importantly, the person would get the sensation that the limb is doing what it’s doing, feeling what it’s feeling. The same would go for artificial limbs.

Special cyber tricks
Warwick has some special tricks in mind as well: Will he be able to wire up his chip to the Internet, so that someone in the United States could make Warwick flex his fingers in Britain, or figure out what his hand was feeling? Could Warwick feed the output from an ultrasonic sensor into the chip, effectively replacing touch or pain with a completely new sense?

“For me, the extrasensory thing raises all sorts of ethical questions,” he said. “When someone has a problem, it’s OK to give them technology to repair that problem. But the thought of enhancing someone’s capabilities — ethically, there’s a bit of a problem with that.”

These are the questions that Warwick has been musing over for years, becoming something of a media personality in the process. Now he’ll be getting some answers at last.

“I think we’re looking at a two- or three-month framework,” he said. “Then (the chip) will be removed.”

If the experiments are successful, Warwick hinted that permanent cyborg status may not be far behind.

“If it’s going OK (after three months) ... then we’ve almost proved that it could stay in indefinitely,” he said.

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