Last Tuesday I went to a talk by Professor Kevin Warwick from Reading University entitled ‘Neural implants: A new medicine or the next evolutionary step’.
For anyone who does not know, Kevin Warwick works in the field of cybernetics, and is somewhat infamous for having several implants, including an RFID tag and a small array of electrodes (implanted into the median nerve of his arm), the latter of which was connected via the internet allowing remote control of several pieces of equipment by signals generated directly from the human nervous system. I’ve heard two of his lectures now (I went to one a couple of years ago) and I enjoyed both of them, I think that the work done is quite pioneering.
The talk was addressed as a public science lecture, so the technical content was minimal, but I still enjoyed hearing about some of the interesting aspects of the field. Approximately half of the talk was about said implants, and the other half was about developing autonomous robots using biological brains. The brains are grown from rat brain cells. and are cultured in an incubating environment at 37C. Whilst they are growing and ‘learning’ in their nice warm surroundings, they interface to the robots via bluetooth which are out exploring the real world (a square box in which they can move around freely), and send back signals from their sensory inputs (usually ultrasonic). If I understood the research correctly, the main result is that the robots ‘learn’ to avoid the walls, without being given any prior instructions. They just instinctively decide that this behaviour is more useful to them. Interesting, huh?
Now there has indeed been a lot of bad press about this research, but I do sometimes think that any publicity is a good thing. News coverage of this type of work is always mostly hype, which is why people working in research usually get irritated with this kind of thing. However, because of the state of television broadcasting at present (a whole blog post in itself, for another time maybe) hype is the only thing that will get people even remotely interested in science these days. You can’t tell it how it actually is, or people would be even less interested.
I am very ‘pro’ the idea of human-machine interfacing, especially neural and nervous system interfaces. I very much understand that some people may find this slightly disturbing, but I wonder… Do they criticise the research from a scientific viewpoint, or just the slight discomfort that they may feel when instinctively pondering the ethical issues that may arise from such studies? I strongly suspect the latter, having read some of the review articles on this subject.
Some may see mass media coverage as detrimental or devaluing to the research, but at least getting the public interested in and provoked by research gives the chance for debate on the issues years before anything becomes a commercial reality. (Compare the still largely unresolved debates on GM foods).
I had a nice chat with Prof. Warwick after the talk about (amongst other things) how ethics often seems to get in the way of scientific progress. It’s nice to meet people who are so enthusiastic about their research. Of course, that’s just my opinion!