I, Cyborg by Kevin Warwick is a sort of autobiography where Pr. Warwick explains his quest to become a "cyborg" - whatever that means. His ultimate goal is to put implants in his body which "upgrade" him by giving his body additional abilities. The book, like many written by scientists, is both poor in composition and structure. I don't think it is worth reading or buying except for the fact that it is rather amusing. This is my completely biased review, not so much of the book, but of its contents and the events it describes.

Cue raving self-publicist

This Kevin guy just doesn't seem to be able to do something without considering whether he's going to be getting publicity for it. I mean, fair enough, he knows that more publicity is equated with more money for research but does this mean he should whore off the whole meaning of science to the media? He doesn't seem to understand the difference between "explain to media the scientific research I'm doing in terms the public can understand" and "Pass off something as research to the media because I know damn well that it would never pass peer review."

For instance, he did a study on 50 kids at a school, seeing what influence different breakfasts had on their IQ. 4 groups of 10 had various set breakfasts and the other acted as a "control group". I suddenly have to supress an urge to be sarcastic. (Kevin embarked on this because he likes the theory that he once read that we became intelligent once we started meat - maybe he should be more worried about carnivorous plants than robots taking over?)

The results were a couple of points of IQ change, favoring bacon and vitamin C. On 12 year-olds. Two IQ tests over a one month interval. Sponsored by people who sell bacon. Furthermore, when the ethics of his findings are questionned, the man complains: "At least the kids got a decent breakfast for a month and the school got a free computer. What's wrong with that?"

Ethics, whaticks?!

For someone who predicts that robots will take over the world and who keeps telling us that the ethical problems are very interesting, Kevin seems to:

  1. Spend a lot of time whining about the ethics commitees he's had to face.
  2. Have a rather limited perception of what ethical behaviour is. Or do I mean that it is not limited enough? Basically, I don't think he would know what ethical behaviour is unless he got a brain upgrade - let's hope his research succeeds on that count.

For those of you who are also ethically challenged, here are a few ethical ways of doing things: The reader who supposes that Pr. Warwick did the opposite would be making a very good assumption.

  • When you buy a piece of technology off a company, knowing that they may well refuse to sell it to you if you tell them what you intend to use it for, you tell them anyway and face the consequences. You do not present them with a fait accompli.
  • When you succeed in doing something impressive in communicating from one end of a computer cable/wireless network to another, you explain that a cable can be arbitrarily long and that as a result, you could do the same thing from any place in the earth. You don't go to New York and repeat an identical experiment (except you're now using a cable which stretches across the Atlantic) in front of the media and justify that in this way, the demonstration is more effective.
  • Furthermore, when you create a new form of switch, you do not plug it into everything that could potentially have a switch and show this to the media as if all the brilliance comes from your switch rather than the technology you're plugging it into.
  • When you hitch onto someone who does work for a charity at a hospital and use them as a way to get some stuff done at said hospital, you let them take whatever credit they like for their charity and don't continously fret over their getting all the publicity.
  • When talking about your research to the media, you try to present them with solid facts and timeframes - especially when making predictions about the future. You also try to constrain your optimism: ok, you love your wife, but that's no excuse to let people believe you're going to have cybersex, nervous system to nervous system, when you know perfectly well that you'll be connecting two motor neuron signals.
  • Oh yeah, when people who have a vested interest in agreeing with you and others who have no technical knowledge agree with you, you do not publically favor their opinion over peer review, claiming that your peers are just jealous.

I started writing this, because I wasn't sure what exactly bugged me about Kevin Warwick. I think I have it. He is ethically challenged. He just doesn't seem to know the difference between right and wrong.

So what did he actually do?

First implant, in 1998, he put an RFID chip in his arm. Yay! This is so different from having one in his pocket.

Second implant, he put some electrodes in the medial nerve in his arm. I won't even go into all the amazing things he claimed might be possible (and poo-pooed the naysayers with a "we won't know unless we try!"). What was possible I hear you ask? Well, neural motor-signals could be picked up on a number of the electrodes when he moved his hand. Occasionally, sensory signals from his hand could be picked up. He could feel sensory signals when current was sent down through the electrodes. On occasion, motor reflexes were triggered by these signals. Whether they were kneejerk reflexes or signals that his hand interpreted as motor signals is not at all clear.

In short, the opening and closing of his hand could be read and electric pulses could be sent to his arm. So open and closed hand provided a binary output signal and presence/absence of pulse provided a binary input signal. That's one hell of a human-computer interface you've got there, Mate! He then proceeded to "communicate" with devices that can read binary input. He also received a number of signals, such as his "ultra-sound" sense. I find this amazingly silly: it seems so obvious that this is no different from plugging an ultrasound device into your ear that I don't know how to explain it.

To crown it all, he then goes and repeats the same experience over the internet and claims the "new understanding" that a "cyborg" (which he says the implants made him) could control anything anywhere and sense anything, anywhere. This is oh-so-new. I've had an ear sense in other people's houses many a time. I've even had a sight sense that works into the past and over distance.

Oh yeah, he stuck an electrode in his wife and sent his electric signals over to her. More on that later.

Also, I disagree.

Disagreeing with Kevin Warwick (all the more so when all you have to argue with is his book) is like trying to argue against someone who claims that we never walked on the moon. There is no coherent argument to convince them aside from the fact that it's patently obvious that we did. Let's address a few claims one by one:

Robots will become more intelligent than humans.Ok, my personal view is that we will need to first create a copy of a human brain based on silicon and teach it for 15 years, before we have anything silicon based with intelligence. And that's not too likely to happen for ethical reasons. At the moment, computers are showing no more sentience or even promise of sentience than they did 40 years ago. Possibly even less promise as we begin to realise the consequences of what we have always known to be the problem with Turing machines. Warwick gets around this by giving specious definitions of intelligence. I say, until we have a machine that goes beyond being turing-complete, fat chance!

Our human communication methods are error-prone and time-consuming. This one needs a firm rebuttal, from someone who knows what he's talking about. He claims that computers can communicate many to many in faultless parallel. What they actually do is crunch numbers very quickly so that serial treatement can look like parallel treatment and so that faults can be detected and covered over to appear faultless. Humans pragmatic communication is simply amazing. More often than not, we are able to interpolate over errors without requesting corrections, we tolerate massive information loss and we use many sensory inputs to coordinate the whole process.

Warwick goes on to claim that the electric pulses he felt from his wife when they were connected up (and again, they were binary: signal vs no signal) were beyond what words will ever express and that neural-to-neural communication will render speech obsolete. As to the first, compare touching and talking... As to the second, not bloody likely.

There is a difference between having an implant and sticking something on/through your skin This is where he loses me the most. I see no difference between having an RFID tag in my pocket or under my skin. He claims this is the difference between cyborg and not. I'd say that some of our human interfaces are not accessible from the outside. But those that are are pretty fine-tuned and rather neat. For some reason, using an inside interface (which incidentally, he can only do by actually using an outside one at the same time - moving his hand) to send a signal over the internet does not seem to me to be any more cyborgish than using the very hand he was moving anyway.

On a related note, in the book, he cites some of the answers that students gave in an exam he set them. He was the lecturer; they gave the answers only to questions about which he was already vocal in his book (and one would presume in his lectures). They just happened to give answers he wanted to hear (particularly in relation to what is/isn't a cyborg) and he claims that this means that they are in agreement with him. Am I the only one who is disturbed by positive peer review by undergraduates who clearly have a vested interest in doing so?

What we did is ground-breaking research which will be very useful to the future. Ok, the results are not bad and are original, but they pale in comparison with the amazing mood-detection, remote-control, direct interface with the nervous system that was promised. And no, plenty of people have had implants. And no, just because they were pacemakers and cochlear implants and yours was an "upgrade", that does not make you the first "cyborg". It seems to me that what was picked up on the 20 active electrodes is equivalent to listening to a piano by placing the claw of a digging machine on the strings and watching the vibrations of the exhaust pipe to try to find out what was played. You simply have no clue what you're picking up, what it's influenced by or anything. Conversely, any signals played back to his electrode array are the same as placing the claw on the piano and noting "woah, sound". To say that with more research you will be able to play Mozart seems a bit of a stretch...

My work obviously must be of great importance if people are willing to go to such great lengths to criticize it. Gah! This must be symptomatic of Captain Cyborg's world view. He seems to seriously think that detractors are jealous and want his work to stop because they don't want him to further the cause of cybernetics. Actually, I think that what he is doing is a serious waste of money, that it detracts from real, useful work that is being done and that some of his ideas are dangerous, in the same way that I think that promoting racial hatred is dangerous: gullible people will think it's true, regardless of the fact that these "facts" are so wrong it's nearly impossible to refute them with a coherent argument.

To crown it all...

Kevin, you might be a charismatic public speaker, but you can't write. Your narrative is the dullest piece of writing I have ever had the misfortune to come across. It's even worse than Tim Berners-Lee's Weaving the Web. There is false suspense over your marriage, your funds and even over whether you'll die or not. At the end of every chapter! It is worse than the Lord of the Rings film! Furthermore, your little quips belittling anything you feel superior to are not well received. If you are so amazingly superior to everyone, why do you stoop to making fun of catholics, women, airport security, philosophers, undergraduates and "narrow-minded ethic's committees" by whom you are loath to be judged.

Kevin, you're a great book-seller and publicist, probably quite intelligent, but as a scientist, you fail. You fail in exactly the same way as creationists - by resorting to poor science, begging the question and appealing to gullible people who do not have the knowledge necessary to refute your claims.

And with that, dear reader, I will conclude my long rant. And if you feel that making fun of creationists and Kevin Warwick in the last paragraph, was an underhanded and unnecessary jab, you will enjoy cringing every second page of the book I'm supposed to have just tried to review.

This rant has been previously published elsewhere on the interweb, by me.

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