Linking two brains together, we’ll be able to exchange ideas on a whole new level, says world’s first cyborg
Augmenting the human body with technology has long ceased to be merely science fiction. But now talk turns to merging computers with the most sophisticated machine of our own – the human brain. Is this a crazy fantasy belonging to some enthusiasts, or a not-too-distant future? We talked about this with the world's first cyborg, Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Coventry and Reading Universities.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Coventry and Reading Universities and the world's first cyborg. Kevin, so great to have you with us.
Kevin Warwick: Thank you.
SS: So many things have been coming up in the news lately. So the technology of implanting electrodes into the brain cortex is at least 20 years old. And electrodes in the brain have already been used to control epileptic fits in people. Yet Musk's Neuralink project is presented as a giant leap forward. Why?
KW: Well, I think Elon Musk is effective in marketing. That’s why it’s presented that way. But it is good in some ways. But at the moment it’s just been experimented on with pigs, as I understand, so that no human trials yet, that, for me, is important. But from the type of electrodes they're using, they're not rigid, the electrodes that I had implanted in my nervous system were hard, like hairbrush spikes. And the potential there is that they can break off, and of course, firing them into the brain or nervous system can be quite dangerous and a hundred spikes in my nervous system. So I think if we're looking at very - And you can move them around, the type of electrodes that Elon Musk is talking about, then that's much better because they can move with the brain or the nervous system. But the issue I have is how do you implant them in a human? Because with the implant I had - just hammer it in very quick, very swift. But with the type of electrodes Musk refers to, I can't see how that's possible. So I have big questions yet how it will work as far as humans are concerned, as opposed to just the pigs that it's been trying -
SS: So let's speculate a bit because if I get it right, the idea of Neuralink is to transmit our thoughts directly to the computer without the need of any middleman technology and at a much higher speed, right? How is it supposed to work exactly? Will I have to say what I want inside my head for a computer to deliver on that? What do you make of it?
KW: Well, ultimately, we don't know how well it's going to work. And what's been done so far is more motor signals, so making any movements, and those neural signals can be sent out, say, to a robot arm to cause it to move, so you can move technology remotely. But also in terms of sensory information, you can feed that back into the brain. So it's motor and sensory, that's what's been done so far. But the big advantage, of course, is what you're referring to, the possibility of sending all sorts of brain signals from the brain not just to a computer, but potentially into another brain or into a machine, an artificial intelligence brain; so the whole possibility of communicating by thought back and forth, that for me is tremendously exciting. But we've done rudiments, a bit like telegraphic communication from nervous system to nervous system. But I think Elon Musk, for example, is way away from doing an experiment sending signals from brain to brain, which I think would be one of the big advantages. There're lots of other advantages.
SS: Our brains are flexible, and they're constantly changing according to what we do with them. Does that imply that a chip implant would have to be upgraded and updated all the time just as well, like mobile applications?
KW: I don't think so. I think what we're looking at rather than a chip implant, it's a bit like a port. I don't know if people are aware of the film ‘The Matrix’ -
KW: Reeves had a load of sockets in the back of the head into his brain. It's a bit like that, it's opening up a port into the brain so that you're then able to send brain signals by the connections down to wherever and signals back into the brain. So the chip itself is not really doing anything in the brain. So I don't think you will need to upgrade the technology. But the beautiful thing is that the human brain cells, what they do, what a brain cell does is really communicate either from brain cell to the brain cell, or from the outside world into the brain, and so on. And brain cells like to communicate. And I really feel here that once you get this port in the brain, the brain cells will adapt, they are flexible, they can make new connections, even when you are older, they still make new connections. And hence, I think they will accept an implant quite readily. No problems about the materials, that's not an issue, but they will accept what they can do. And then when brain cells can communicate in a whole new way, they will go for it, brain cells will be like, ‘hey, yeah, we want to do this’ effectively. And so we will have quite a switch. It's not just a case of putting the implant in and it will do what it can do, I think over a period of time that your brain will adapt to the new possibilities.
SS: Well, I know you get excited about the prospect of communicating with each other without words in the future with the help of electrodes implanted in our neural system. But I'm thinking like the beauty of a thought is sometimes in fact that it's private. Whenever I choose not to broadcast it, I just shut up. So if we all communicate by thoughts someday, what happens if we don't want some more thoughts to be transmitted?
KW: Well, I hate to disagree with you there because I think with technology, what we've seen, what we've actually seen with Facebook, and all sorts of different - I mean Twitter and so on, is that when humans can communicate in a whole new way, they really go for it. Whether you're a child, whether you're an adult, you can communicate in a new way, that is exciting for you because that's what your brain cells want to do. It's not that you're going against what your body wants, it’s what your brain cells want to do. And so the privacy is not an issue, we don't worry about credit cards and having information on us all the time by card companies and shops because the advantages we get by being able to do that, to use the technology. And with communication, we don't worry too much at all about the privacy issues if we go on social media, because of the advantages we get in the new ability to communicate. And hence, I think that is going to be the critical factor, we will want to do it, we will want to communicate directly brain to brain, even though it opens up possibilities of people literally hacking into our brains, finding what some of our innermost thoughts are. It's the interface essentially between the human brain and technology that's the problem. And once we integrate the two much more, I believe, maybe we won't worry about our innermost thoughts, because we're gaining so much, or we build up a new way of operating that we have innermost thoughts because your brain is not just one organ, it's lots of different organs effectively, that do different things. And so maybe within part of your brain, you can have the thoughts, yes, ‘this person is silly’, or ‘I don't like them’, whatever, but you don't want them to know that. And maybe in communicating even brain to the brain, you are able to filter that. But at the moment we don't know, because we simply can't do it. But so I think that's not to say ‘don't do it, because of the loss of privacy’, we need to do the experiments now to find out. And if there are issues, as you're saying, then maybe we pull back from it a bit. But I suspect that won't be those issues.
SS: But okay, it's one thing to implant electrodes to read signals in one or two brain regions. But our thoughts are the product of billions of neural connections. How can an electronic device connect itself to every single neuron? I mean, the task seems improbable.
KW: I don't think we're connecting to every single neuron. That's not the idea at all. Even with Elon Musk - Elon Musk is talking of perhaps thousands of connections. All I had so far in the experiments I've done is a hundred-connection. When you're communicating now, you don't use all of your brain cells to communicate, you use a small, relatively small number of them. So I think it is this port, you're still looking maybe thousands, maybe it might be millions of connections in the end, but relative to the hundred billion neurons that you've got, it's still a relatively small number. So I don't think you're looking at connecting each brain cell to an electrode. That's not what we're looking to do by any means, but a small number. But hopefully, that small number is fairly large, because it opens up lots of possibilities. But there are questions as to which neurons in the brain, do you just connect the motor neurons and you connect the sensory neurons and so on? Or do you spread it around much more? So where the electrodes are positioned is something we will need to learn over the time, which is the best positions and so on.
SS: Kevin, you said in one of your interviews that we humans are pretty limited in what we can do, particularly mentally. And we just have a bunch of brain cells, and it's surprising because it seems to me that especially mentally, we still don't know our limits. I mean, we keep on studying our brains and keep on being amazed and how complex and powerful they are. Why do you feel that humans are limited?
KW: We have a finite number of brain cells. And certainly, I agree with you that we could do more with the brain cells we've got. And maybe this link will allow us to learn what the possibilities are. But at the same time, we can see when you look at computer technology, particularly artificial intelligence, some of the things that it can do - just the speed and complexity of the way it can make calculations or communication (it can communicate better, computer-to-computer communication is much better than human communication), it does a lot of things better than we do. So the possibility, not just being restricted with the brains we've got with the finite number of brain cells, but even just combining two human brains together - I mean, that, to me, has a lot of advantages, not just because of the communication, but because of the addition. And it's thinking in terms of not communicating, not sending just signals as we do now but in terms of emotions, feelings, ideas, concepts, the whole thing, the whole gamut of what's going on in our brains, we have the possibility of communicating in a much better way. So linking just two brains together, we can transfer ideas from person to person, I would believe, in a much better way.
SS: Elon Musk claims Neuralink has a huge therapeutic potential being able one day to help paralysis, Alzheimer, Parkinson's disease. Can neural implants bring back the actual ability to hear, to see?
KW: Well, I think the therapeutic side of things is one of the things that will drive it forward. Yes, already Parkinson’s implants and [implants to counter] depression and so on, but a lot of other neurological problems: schizophrenia, I think, is one of those things at the moment is not been tackled electrically. We have to remember that the brain is electrochemical, partly electrical, partly chemical, whereas most medicine is chemical with all sorts of side effects. You have a headache - you take aspirin, and it has side effects, and it probably still doesn't solve the headache that you've got, whereas we could potentially tackle things like that electrically. So there's all sorts of therapeutic possibilities to it. I think when we look to the future, it may be some of the things that we do at the moment, particularly in terms of communication, we won't do in the future, we will move on, we will evolve with the technology. And so this way of communicating after a while will die out because we don't need to communicate that way when we think to each other, we can communicate in a much richer form and much better way, and we will find it - or people, those evolved from us will look back and say, ‘Oh, how did they communicate in such a limited way all those years back in 2020?’
SS: You know, there's an example of a colourblind man having an antenna that lets him sense the colours. So I read you talk about things that let one feel ultrasound or get infrared vision. What else is a real possibility for you in terms of upgrades for humans? What can you see as an actual doable thing in the nearest future versus theoretical possibilities?
KW: One of the things I feel is how we understand the world around us. Human brain operates in three dimensions, we look at space and architecture and so on as a three-dimensional thing; of course, space is not certainly three-dimensional. Space is space, and you can put as many dimensions in your understanding of it, which of course, with machine technology, with artificial intelligence you can do that - machines can understand the world around us in hundreds, thousands of dimensions, which is much more complex. And I really feel a realistic target is, in the years ahead, we will understand the universe in many more dimensions than we do at the moment. And that, I hope, will change space travel, for example, because at the moment we think in three dimensions so it takes us a long time to get to the moon, which is almost nowhere in the universe. If we want to go to Mars we know it’s certainly going to take several years to get there because we're thinking in three dimensions. When we start to think this joint human-machine way of thinking in terms of 20 or 30 dimensions, we can just zip that through the dimensions. So I sincerely hope that is gonna be a possibility. I don't like to think of us just being stuck in this one part of the universe.
SS: Can technology actually improve my brain function at least theoretically? I mean, can I implant a chip and be finally able to learn a language, solve complex math problems, or be able to play Bach flawlessly without 20 years of practice and experience?
KW: Ah, good question. I don’t think there’s anyone who’s quite able to find out about things like that. I mean, I would love to know. I'm not very good at playing musical instruments, I am absolutely terrible at languages. My wife is Czech and I’m still not very good at learning the Czech language. So if there was some help on that - I mean, things will change with languages. I don't know that we will need languages where we're going. I sincerely hope that when we can communicate just by thinking to each other - There's a lot of things we think about, you're sitting in a chair, I'm sitting in a chair, and we can think of those things and the ideas of those things, but then we use languages to describe it to someone else. If we're not using speech, potentially, we don't need language, so things will change dramatically. I know philosophers say we think in language, I honestly don't believe we do think specifically in some language construct, I think we put languages on it. But it's something that will change dramatically. And maybe abilities, motor abilities, the ability to play golf and so on, which again, I'm not particularly good at, but if I can download, and I think that's got to be some short-term possibility, download a number of movements into my body, which will cause me to play golf a little bit better, I probably still won't be as good as the professional golfers are. But I can't see why those particular sets of movements in a sort of robotic way can't be downloaded into my brain so I perform some set of action but my body is not a professional golfer's body, so I still probably wouldn't be as good, but it would be a lot better than I was beforehand.
SS: So if the brain in a more distant future will be connected to a network via a chip of some kind, and that network will be run by artificial intelligence, therefore, artificial intelligence will be able to map all processes that go on inside a brain, if it will know and be able to sort of replicate the processes inside a brain, will it lead to theoretically having consciousness? What I want to say is, could the desire to enhance humans lead to a very enhanced artificial intelligence instead?
KW: Yes, it could be. My worry is if we don't do this, and that could be a dangerous scenario that we could have artificial intelligence with a form of consciousness potentially very different than human consciousness. This is what Alan Turing said many years ago, ‘Machines can’t be conscious’. Of course, they can be but it’s probably different than human consciousness. But when we look at something that is an amalgamation, then I would be quite happy, I would love to have a mixed form of consciousness, not just the human type that we've got, but also a machine element to that consciousness because it would give me all sorts of abilities and abilities to think in a much deeper way. So I think there are lots of advantages to it. But there are also potential dangers that you're alluding to. And that's something we're going to have to be very careful, very wary of. Anyway, I think whether artificial intelligence is separate to humans, particularly in the military domain, how much are we going to allow it to do the financial sector and so on, and without humans being in control of what's going on, as opposed to this mixed form, and we link human brains with machine brains and the possibility of having this enhanced mixed consciousness, part AI, part human.
SS: So you point out the close connection between technology and the human brain will affect the issue of autonomy of human beings. And I will ask point-blank: once our brains are connected to computers, will this be the end of us as fully autonomous beings because, I mean, machines will be able to make us think certain things and modify our behaviours accordingly?
KW: I think you're quite right. I mean, even now, are we really autonomous beings? And the possibility of living just yourself, one person, in the world that we live in now - it's extreme, maybe some people - I don't think I could, I'm not sure that my body would take the different foods that I have to eat, whether I would be able to survive in a world where I was the only person effectively. So I think we need our network, we need other people, we need technology now to live in the world we're in. And this is just taking it that bit further. In terms of understanding what is going on in the human brain, I think with therapeutic methods now, one of the projects I'm working on for Parkinson’s disease, with electrodes in the brain to teach the brain how to behave in a way that overcomes the problems of Parkinson's disease - with those electrodes and using AI, what we do is learn how the different parts of the brain are behaving, particularly those that are affecting Parkinson’s disease. So it’s re-modelling the brain in an artificial intelligence system. And you can get, for example, one part before the typical tremors that are associated with Parkinson’s disease, before they start, the artificial intelligence system can know several seconds ahead that they are going to stop. So the person themselves doesn't know they're going to have the tremor starting, but the computer does. So I think we can get advantage of understanding the human brain much more through computer technology, which we can use for therapy, which helps people, that's got to be a good thing, but also, we can enhance the way we're thinking. The computer knows what we're going to think before we think it.
SS: Yuval Noah Harari voiced an opinion that augmenting yourself with tech will be a thing of rich people mostly. And I mean, of course, in the beginning, like it was with automobiles or cell phones, it certainly will be. But this time we're not talking cell phones. We're talking evolutionary level change. Will a whole layer of people be excluded from having new abilities? Could it split humanity into two tiers - wealthy enough to be cyborgs and the rest, just like the common folks?
KW: Well, I mean, I would love to be, ‘Oh, yes, now everything's going to be alright’. But if we look realistically, with technology, as you've said, with cell phones, with automobiles, some people have them, some people have more of them and some people don't have any of them at all... I think what that does is it stretches society in terms of society’s abilities. So those with the technology can communicate in all sorts of ways and can interact and can benefit from it. And those without any of the society really have very limited capabilities in comparison. So it’s stretching society a bit like an elastic band. I think this will do is further stretch it. So yes, those with the money, those that want to experiment a bit, get in there first, will have abilities, and those that don't have implants in their brain will not have anything like those abilities. But the key thing is, I think, it will stretch it a bit like an elastic band, but most likely that band is going to break so that we end up with those that have implants, that can communicate just by thinking to each other and so on, will have abilities way beyond those that don't. So I think it could easily stretch the band so we just split, evolve into those with implants and those without.
SS: Alright, Kevin, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. Good luck with everything. We were talking to Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Coventry and Reading Universities and the world's first cyborg.
KW: Thank you.