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Interview with Kevin Warwick, AKA Captain Cyborg

Friday, March 11, 2011

Editor’s Note: Guest Blogger and Googler Alfred Biehler has participated in many science fairs as a student with projects that included building a cyclocomputer and speakers from household materials and getting printers to do new things. He is currently playing with sending his phone into space. Alfred was invited to interview Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics, to discuss...

"Fancy a day out with a Cyborg?"

A Googler recently asked me the above question. She knew someone with a robot on his desk would not be able to resist such an offer. And what an incredible day it was!

Kevin Warwick is a professor in cybernetics at Reading University and an incredible scientist, who inspired me in a few hours to test the boundaries that we see every day, and find innovative new ways of solving problems. Let me give you a few examples: As many of us know, impulses run between our brains and muscles. Kevin decided to plug a few wires into his own nerves and play with the output: Controlling a robotic hand with his brain, eventually while being on the other side of the planet.

He did not stop at observing the nervous system signals... he decided to send it signals too. He connected a few sonar sensors mounted on a baseball cap, to his nervous system. With a bit of practice, he taught his brain to interpret the sonar senor output, effectively allowing him to see what a bat would see without relying on his eyes. (Yes - it’s me in the video, with the cap on... “seeing” with my eyes closed!) Can you imagine the possibilities of this for people who might have lost their eye sight, or a limb? Or fixing deep sea optical fibre connections, or operating in those difficult to reach places?

And if that was not enough... he decided to connect his nerves with that of his wife, to allow for direct communication. How’s that for marital commitment?! Interestingly, he said that science fiction books that he read as a kid fueled a lot of his interests and his inquisitive mind.

But he is taking robotics also to a new level. The garden variety robot on my desk is really just a electrically powered mechanical arm. More advanced robots are controlled by computers or even artificial intelligence that will learn what works, and do more of that, and less of what does not work. Kevin decided to build a brain, a biological brain (grown from rat embryo brain sells in a dish with lots of probes on the base), and connect this biological AI brain to a few motors and sonar sensors. The result is a robot, controlled by a lab brain, and he demonstrated that it’s possible for this brain to learn that walking into walls is not as rewarding as avoiding them.

And this highlights what makes us so special: The ability to learn. To try, to test, to experiment. To fail, to try again in another way, to learn, to grow and to discover.

After spending an afternoon with Kevin, I was inspired to go break out my Lego bricks and test the boundaries again. Go tackle that next challenge in your project with fresh eyes. Who knows? You might well be at the start of some life changing invention!