Last August, Kevin Warwick had a silicon chip transponder implanted in his arm, linking him directly to a computer network that allowed computer signals to travel in and out of his body. Doctors implanted the transponder during a 15-minute operation that required only a local anesthetic.
When the transponer was in his body (the doctors removed it after eight and a half days), Warwick, a professor in the cybernetics department at the University of Reading in Reading, England, found that his life changed in some rather odd ways. When he walked through the door of his department, for example, a computerized voice greeted him: “Hello, Professor Warwick.” A light in the laboratory’s foyer came on, and a computer opened to his Web page and furnished him with an up-to-date count of his e-mails. And Warwick had nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide: A map of the building on a PC tracked his whereabouts at all times.
The psychological effect on Warwick was unexpectedly profound. “I did feel a very strong closeness to the computer with which I was linked – I didn’t expect that at all,” says the professor, who sees the future of uniting computers and humans as both exciting and ominous. On one hand, there are endless opportunities for streamlining the computer interface, enabling us to operate systems directly through our nerve signals and thought processes. On the other hand, says Warwick, “It does point more toward humans simply becoming nodes on a machine-controlled network.” The question, Warwick says, comes down to “who will be running things in the future, humans or machines?”
The most important lesson he took away from his time with the transponder: “It made me realize how the human body is just another being – not so special.”
Warwick is not the only scientist pondering such questions. At British Telecommunications Laboratories in Martlesham Heath, England, researchers are looking at different ways of uniting humans and computers, including implanted technologies that might one day allow people to carry such data as medical records, bank information and driver’s licenses embedded right in their bodies. Peter Cochrane, BT’s head of research, points out that more than one million people are already living with embedded chips in the form of pacemakers or other medical equipment. “It is now unlikely you will live a full life span without some form of implant,” says Cochrane.
But what of the implications for humans as computers become more intertwined with us? “People are the real troublemakers,” says Cochrane. Nevertheless, he concedes that as computers develop personalities, the possibility of becoming psychologically linked will become greater.
And you thought too many potato chips could be dangerous.