November 15, 2004

A further challenge to Strong Identity - Nerve Coupled Cooperating Humans

While we are on this Identity thread, one of the more interesting talks at the Digital Identity forum was Kevin Warwick's keynote on his experiences as a Cyborg. Professor Warwick from Reading University spends his idle experimental time inventing special chips designed to interface into nerves and poking them into himself.

By coupling himself up to a computer, at the nerve level rather than the fingertip level, he has made himself into a Cyborg, at least some of the time. His standard quip refers to a documentary made 20 years or so back with a well known politician, called Terminator, gets a nervous laugh.

Cutting to the chase, what has he done? Well, he's connected his nerves to a mechanical arm and got it clutching in sync with his arm. There's a delay of about a second between his hand clutch and the mechanical clutch, and a loss of reliability as every second clutch seems to get lost. But impressive none the less. The article below refers to shenanigans where he extended the link over the Internet. Predictably the journo grasped the newsworthiness of hackers taking control of his extended limbs, but readers will quickly see the solution there. Get some cyborg crypto, Kevin!

Better yet is the experiment to tap into an excitement or tension nerve, and use the input to change colours on a necklace his wife wore. Someone disconcertingly, the change in colour from blue to red was indicative of Professor Warwick getting excited about something that his wife could not see - as they were coupled with a radio link that let them drift apart.

The latest experiment and the most interesting to date was when he impressed on his wife the need to more actively participate. In a moment of madness, she agreed to have a probe inserted into her nerves so she also could communicate in the new cyborgian fashion. What he didn't tell her (and claimed he didn't know) was that these things get inserted without anaesthetic, and as they strike nerve, the pain is something beyond. Something about needing a good contact, the surgeon said...

But anyway, to the experiment. Once all the technical bugs had been ironed out, the couple were able to now communicate both ways using the clutching signal. That is, each could feel the other clutch at their fist. (That is, Kevin could feel his wife clutching her own fist, and vice versa.) Hence, once we get past the breach in English language grammer, the two have a rudimentary capability of communicating with Morse code or the like. This link could be happily extended over wireless (ain't 802.11 grand!) allowing for what may well be the first remote grope. Perhaps the remote slap is next on the experimental agenda.

What they achieved is tiny in terms of actual results, but the implications are huge. We now have feedback at the nerve level between humans! A binary signal, yes, but a signal and a closed loop even. This is reminiscent of the early experiments in radio transmission, and the telephone. Yes, the results then were silly, too, but the implications were immense.

So how do we drag the games of two nervously coupled people back to the question of Identity? There are two things. Firstly, it is now somewhat unclear where a person who is also a cyborg is going to be. What mechanical limbs do they control, and how remote are they?

Secondly, there is some possibility of confusing just what an identity is. If a person can link at the cognitive level to a computer, and two people can link at the nervous level, and these entities start to merge their capabilities, what happens when you have a cell of half a dozen people across the planet and the odd 2 or 3 racks' worth of computing power, all working together?

Are we at the cusp of losing cohesive identity altogether, or do we need to create some new legal fiction such as the Limited Liability Multiple Brain Multiple CPU Cyborg? And, just because there are some propertarians chewing their fingernails on this essential point, just who gets to own the output of our new LLMBMCCs?

Anyway, back to lightness and mirth. Here's the article.

Virus warning: Cyborgs at risk
By Jo Best

Story last modified November 12, 2004, 5:06 PM PST

Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University in England, is looking forward to becoming a cyborg again.

But the academic, who has wired his nervous system up to a computer and put an RFID chip in his arm, is also warning that the day will come when computer viruses can infect humans as well as PCs.

Speaking this week at Consult Hyperion's fifth Digital Identity Forum in London, Warwick spoke of a future when those who aren't cyborgs will be considered the odd ones.

"For those of you that want to stay'll be a subspecies in the future," he said.

Warwick said he believes there are advantages for a human being networked to a computer. It would mean an almost "infinite knowledge base," he said, adding that it would be akin to upgrading humans.

The security problems that dog modern computing won't be much different from those that could plague the cyborgs of the future. "We're looking at software viruses and biological viruses becoming one and the same," Warwick said. "The security problems (will) be much, much greater."
Digital agenda

If humans were networked, the implications of being hacked would be far more serious, and attitudes toward hackers would be radically changed, he added. At the moment, hackers' illegal input into a network is tolerated, he claimed. But if humans were connected to the Internet and hacks carried out, that would push the realms of tolerance, he said.

In Warwick's own networking experiments, in which he used his body's connectivity to operate a mechanical arm in the United States, the scientist didn't publicize the IP address of his arm in case someone hijacked it.

While networked humans may be a significant way off, Warwick's experiments are intended to have a practical purpose. He has been working with Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the United Kingdom on the possible implications of a networked nervous system for those with spinal injuries. Researchers are exploring, for example, whether people might be able to control a wheelchair through their nervous system.

Nevertheless, Warwick said the idea of marrying humanity and technology isn't currently a popular one. Talking of his RFID experiments, he said, "I got a lot of criticism, I don't know why."

Putting RFID chips in arms is now more than a novelty. Partygoers at one club in Spain can choose to have RFID chips implanted in their arms as a means of paying for their drinks. Some Mexican law enforcement officials had the chips implanted to fend off attempted kidnappings.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also recently approved the use of RFID in humans. One potential application would be allowing medical staff to draw information on a patient's health from the chip.

Jo Best of reported from London.

Posted by iang at November 15, 2004 07:48 PM | TrackBack

A really great one here. I have just finished a hard days work of the manual variety and after reading this would appreciate an implant that could be linked to a machine with more power.

I imagine that as the economics of making boats becomes more advanced the custom building from a cold mold will allow for more implants to execute the task. The issue at hand is the economics versus the quality of the process. A finely manufactured boat can be made either by custom molding by hand - the expensive kind - or by factory molds with assembly lines. The assembly lines if properly tooled and machined will produce a superior product to the hand built /but/ you cannot afford the tooling if you are building one of a kind.

The economics of small runs on an automated basis require computers to achieve sucess. These implants could bridge the divide between the expensive tooling and the custom builder. By merging the manual process to machine accuracy the economics of a highly skilled person with a good rate of pay might be achieved rather than hundreds of poorly paid people building luxury boats.

Posted by: Jimbo at November 16, 2004 08:32 AM