Human- Machine Convergence

By Team Digit Published Date
01 - Jun - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2005
Human- Machine Convergence
Kevin Warwick, the world's first Cyborg, is a Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, UK
For more of Kevin Warwick, visit

If asked to name the two technical advances that will have a profound effect on society in the not-too-distant future, my answer would be clear and certain.

Firstly, the ability to communicate directly from brain to brain between humans, which could be called 'Thought Communication'. Secondly, the use of electronic signals, as opposed to chemical, for the treatment of all sorts of ailments, particularly those that are mental in nature, which could be described as 'E-Medicine'.

These two seemingly disparate realisations have, perhaps surprisingly, a common technological base-namely the use of implant technology to link the human brain directly into the computer network. Essentially, humans will become nodes on the Internet. From a cybernetic viewpoint, signals on the human nervous system and those in the computer network are interchangeable, and are effectively one and the same.

The two major advances of Thought Communication and E-medicine also have commonality, in the sense, important initial steps have been taken in the appropriate direction. In both cases, we are already on the way to achieving the results.

In the case of Thought Communication, contact has been successfully achieved thus far,  in the form of radio telegraphic communication that takes place directly between the nervous systems of two humans.

An experiment repeated between two human brains is merely a matter of time. What will be interesting then is how swiftly things will move forward. Will it be a case of telephonic communication, followed by memory uploads and downloads, or will we all learn to think in a new language-with our original spoken language, with speech (in general) becoming obsolete?

It's important to realise how poorly humans communicate at present, converting complex electrochemical brain signals into relatively trivial bursts of pressure waves, by mouth movement, which is called speech. These waves are picked up in the ears of other individuals, who in turn, try to put some sense into the signals they are receiving.

Unfortunately, the understood message is invariably altered from the original, intended message, especially when different cultures are involved. Thought Communication, therefore, offers a much more powerful, effective, and less error-prone means of communication.

As was the case with the telegraph, the telephone and the mobile phone-all had a significant impact on society, culture and commercial interests. Thus, communicating by thought is likely to have an even more profound effect than all the  above three combined.

E-Medicine also depends on the basic electrochemical nature of the human brain and nervous system. Chemicals have, for some reason, been the mainstay in the Western world for treatment of all types of diseases for centuries. However, in the twilight of the last millennium we witnessed the first twinklings of the successful treatment of diseases by means of electronic brain stimulation through implanted electrodes.

The treatment of Parkinson's disease by this approach was found to be very successful. In fact,  in the new millennium, the number of patients so treated had already run into hundreds. Now we can witness reports on successful trials and further studies involving individuals with epilepsy or multiple sclerosis. Clearly, the field is rapidly growing and diversifying.

Indeed, it is exciting to look at the range of absolute potential in the broader sense of E-Medicine. Basically, what we are looking at is the use of purely electronic signals to dramatically alter the functioning of a human brain. In the case of Parkinson's disease or epilepsy, the result is to override or counteract the nature of the disease, restoring the individual to a semblance of normalcy. In this sense, the use of electronic signals can be seen as a viable alternative, and in many cases, an improvement on the more traditional chemical alternative.

Electronic signals can be used to alter the workings of the human brain in a variety of ways. For instance, we can consider the possibilities of memory download-giving individuals memories, which hitherto, they have never experienced.

This can even be extended to education. Want to play golf like Tiger Woods? Well, perhaps the mental ability can be downloaded, even if physically you might be a little overweight or out of condition. But potentially, even that could be dealt with. Why not try the patented 'Slimplant'-electronic signals used to control a brain's functioning regarding eating and drinking patterns and the amount of regular exercise?

Research on rats has shown that their planned movements can be controlled externally by  the computer. When this is transferred to the human brain it means that you will not be able to have that extra meal that you know you shouldn't; the implant will not let you! Of course, this could put McDonald's out of business!

All sorts of behavioural patterns could be controlled in the same way. For instance, one individual could potentially control some of the movements and decisions made by another. Not sure what your spouse is doing? Well, now you could be, via an implant.

Conversely, a person might want such signals to allow them to deal confidently with an interview, or make a presentation, or to do the right thing on a first date. The possibilities are endless. Any time you are not sure-rely on the implant.

At the same time, such possibilities raise enormous social and ethical questions. It is one thing to use this technology for therapeutic purposes in order to help someone who has, say, Parkinson's disease or paralysis-very few people would disagree with such usage.
However, it's a very different thing when it comes to controlling another individual's habits or movements. Even if technology allows it, the  society on the whole may not be keen on the idea. Society is, indeed, a strange creature.

The ethical issues are further exacerbated when enhancement of an individual is contemplated. The ability to communicate by thought is one feature. However, brain implants offer the possibilities of: extra-sensory input (such as infrared, ultrasonics), extending your nervous system across the Internet (your brain can directly control technology in cyberspace), having the mathematical and memory features of a computer directly linked with your brain, and being able to think in many dimensions.

Through my own implant self-experimentation research, I have already experienced an extra, ultrasonic sense. I have directly controlled a robot hand on a different continent by brain signals alone, and have communicated directly from one nervous system to another.

To me, the prospect of upgrading from the limited world of a human into an exciting part-human part-machine world-a 'Cyborg', in science fiction terms, is so exciting that I cannot wait. Although many others will feel like I do, some may feel quite differently.

For instance, if some humans have extra abilities, how will they treat those that remain mere humans? Nevertheless, just because some people do not want to be upgraded, why should they  stop those who want to be upgraded? Clearly, we face tough ethical questions in the years to come.

One area where this is highlighted is the military domain. Implant technology opens many avenues to a whole new world of technological warfare. Not only can those involved have more improved intellectual capabilities, including extra senses, but also, humans themselves no longer need to be physically present in the battlefield.

With a nervous system that can be extended via a network, the human soldier, pilot or sailor can be safely ensconced at home, while some of their senses are remote, at the point of combat. Any thoughts of the individual on control or movement, as would be the case in firing a missile, can then be translated into immediate, direct commands in the combat zone.

From the home side's perspective, this has the distinct advantage of saving the lives of those in combat. For the opposition, however, it becomes more of a challenge. Destroying a vehicle or machine would be just that and only that. If it can be replaced, it will be.

Moreover, the attacking machine will need no intelligence, no computer, and no high technology on board. Effectively, it can almost become a 'throw-away', low-cost artificial soldier, with the actual personnel residing safely at home.

Space travel, too, would take on a distinctly different meaning. Why send astronauts into the extremely dangerous environment of outer space when they can stay at home and have their nervous system linked to a distant planet, by satellite?

In this way, we will soon be able to experience planets at the extremes of our solar system, which would, at present, appear to be impossible otherwise-simply because of the time required to safely transport humans across space for such a distance, never mind bringing them back again.

In all probability, we will develop space travellers that spring to life when they arrive at a distant planet, carrying and relaying signals from and to the human astronauts back on planet earth.

With this brave new world, just as we have tremendous positives, just as we can enable a lot of people who would otherwise have a more restricted life, just as we can upgrade all human mental capabilities and replace worn-out biological body parts with shiny new mechanical prostheses-we have a potential goliath of a negative hiding around the corner.

"With a nervous system that can be extended via a network, human soldiers can be safe at home, while some of their senses are remote, at the point of combat."

The big question is, can we as humans stay in control? Can we remain the dominant life form on earth, or will we hand over power to a machine species, the likes and nature of which we really do not understand?

I believe it's not our physical prowess that has put humans in the powerful, controlling position we have on earth; rather, it's our intelligence. To put it simply, courtesy our intellectual capabilities, and because human brains can mostly out-think and outwit those of other creatures, we have claimed for ourselves the driving seat on earth. But as machine intelligence is rapidly improved, as computer-based systems become more powerful,  how long can human domination last?
It is estimated that within a decade, standalone computers will have more processing power than an individual human brain. Not only that, but they will be networked. And what is the intelligence of a machine-brain network?

Even now, a typical computer can perform more calculations in the blink of an eye than a human brain can perform in a week. By giving such machines the ability to defend themselves under all conditions, we endow them with survival instinct-and this doesn't have to be programmed in.

As of now, it would be quite impossible to actually 'switch off' the Internet. We humans are far too dependent on it. Many lives revolve around the Internet on a day-to-day basis, and already, our present way of life demands that the Internet remain operative. Humans are, in fact, the machines' defenders!

Just as humans do not listen to sheep or dogs- creatures we feel are less intelligent than ourselves, similarly, intelligent machines are very unlikely to listen to humans now. For instance, if a sheep came into your room today and said "Baaah", you would not say to it, "OK, yes, I will do what you tell me". After all, the noises the sheep make are trivial in comparison with human language. Likewise, in the future, intelligent machines will find human noises (speech) trivial.

What is to be done about this? Are we all doomed? Clearly, our only hope is to upgrade our own abilities, to create a partnership between human intelligence and machine intelligence. So, far from being something that would be good to do, linking human and machine brains together is quite simply something we have to do.

"If you can't beat them, join them", appears to be true here. The decision is yours. Will you be happy remaining a human, part of a sub-species in the years ahead? Or wouldn't you rather be upgraded and have extra memory and extra senses? Wouldn't you like to converge with technology?

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