Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

One of the most tangential, and consequently least horrible, contingencies of the Soham murders is the decision by the parents of an 11-year-old girl to have a microchip implanted in their daughter so she might be traceable in the extremely unlikely event of her abduction. The scientist behind the chip – which has been soundly criticised by Barnardo’s – is Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University. Warwick is no stranger to publicity. His autobiography, I, Cyborg, which came out last month (Century, £16.99), meticulously catalogues his very many newspaper, magazine, radio and TV appearances. With commendable honesty, he also acknowledges the amount of (unfair, obviously) criticism he has received for being greedy for media attention. That isn’t the main thrust of the book, though, which is rather an account of why he is turning himself into a cyborg.

Warwick has been working with robots for twenty years. In that time, he has come up with some rather wonderful inventions, including a sign-language telephone system for deaf people and a device to save epileptics from drowning in the bath. The more work he has done with computers and artificial neural networks, however, the more convinced he has become that it won’t be long before there are autonomous machines that are more intelligent than people. Since there is no guarantee that these machines will be benign, it is vital we find a way to remain in control. His solution is to upgrade human beings to acquire characteristics of machine intelligence that we currently lack: for example, extra senses – ultrasonic, infrared, X-ray – and telepathic communication. The future he envisions is nightmarish:

We will interface with machines through thought signals. We will become nodes on a techno-network. We will be able to communicate with other humans merely by thinking to each other. Speech, as we know it, may well become obsolete . . . We will not need to remember anything . . . We will even be able to relive memories that we didn’t have in the first place . . . Of course it doesn’t mean everyone has to become a cyborg . . . But be warned . . . those who remain as mere humans are likely to become a sub-species.

It’s enough to make you look around for a mechanical loom to smash up. That this cod-Nietzschean dystopia might be something to look forward to is horrifying. And ‘how will we achieve this? Quite simply with silicon-chip technology implanted into the human body.’ Might there be an ulterior motive to Kevin Warwick’s scheme for protecting children from paedophiles?

There probably isn’t too much to worry about, however, despite Warwick’s unquestionable technological and scientific ability. For a start, he doesn’t make a good case for the need physically to implant machinery in us. His first step towards cyborghood was having a chip surgically inserted into his upper left arm that, by means of a radio signal, caused the doors in his department to open for him and the lights to come on. Which is quite exciting, I suppose, but only really useful for a person with severe physical disabilities; in which case the chip could be implanted in their wheelchair. All use of technology is in a sense cybernetic, involving interaction between people and machines. I can already use a telescope to see superhumanly far, an aeroplane or even a bicycle to travel superhumanly fast. Warwick’s delight at mechanising his own body seems to be rooted in areas of his psyche to which I’m more than happy not to have telepathic access.

Warwick’s contempt for language, his insensitivity to its complexity and power (evident, as much as anything, from the disarming artlessness of his prose), his failure to consider the knottedness of its relationship to thought, is exasperating. His notion ‘that we are all philosophers, and that those who describe themselves as “a philosopher” simply do not have a day job to go to’ is given the lie by the woolliness of his own homespun ‘philosophical’ thought: he doesn’t, for example, seem to think that ‘intelligence’ and ‘consciousness’ are tricky concepts. He appears to have at once a total disregard for the self and a sense of it as an unshakeable core. I could go on.

Or I could direct to you to a hilarious, if slightly unkind website, www.kevinwarwick.org.uk, the home of ‘Kevin Warwick Watch’. Among the things it keeps count of are mentions of Mrs Warwick. The professor claims to be half of ‘the first married couple ever to experience nervous-system-to-nervous-system communication’, which in one sense is true (they got themselves wired, or rather nerved, up together), but in another the privilege is Adam and Eve’s, in their role as the first married couple ever to hold hands.