Kevin Warwick: His name raises extremes of opinion.
For more than a decade, this highly controversial cybernetics professor has been making waves. His high-profile experiments—and even higher-profile claim that he’s the first living cyborg—earned him column inches and unflattering nicknames.
But can the man they call Captain Cyborg really teach executives anything about the future of business? Emma Byrne investigates…
When I walk into the office of cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick, I’m not sure where to put my feet: His floor is littered with circuit boards and disemboweled robots.
It’s also hard to know where to look; a collection of framed magazine covers that he’s graced catches my eye.
So does a friendly looking bug on wheels. “It’s Cybot” he’ll tell me later. He’s very proud of the kit robot—one of his designs—which took hobbyist robotics into the sub-$150 realm. “The only other one that was available at the time cost thousands of pounds—what kid can afford that?”
His office is a cross between a toyshop and Tony Stark’s basement. But for all his love of tinkering, Kevin Warwick couldn’t be less like Stark if he tried. He tells me of his horror of fancy awards dinners—he’d much prefer a fish ’n’ chip supper with fellow inventors.
Looking around the room I have to ask him: which of his hundreds of projects is he most proud of. The answer comes back instantly.
“No question, it would have to be when I hooked up with my wife.” He’s not talking about dating: In 2002, he and his wife, Irena, installed matching implants that recorded signals from their central nervous system. They were able to correctly identify each other’s nerve signals around 98% of the time.
“Sam Morse, the inventor of Morse code, talked about brain-to-brain communication. He sorted out the distance but he still needed that physical interface, the finger on the key. Over the years we’ve made loads of improvements in bandwidth and distance but we still haven’t got past the interface problem.”
The “Interface Problem”?
“I mean, this…” he slaps the phone on his desk which lets out a startled ding, “…is electric and this…” he taps his head, “…is electric but we still have to go through this physical mechanism of making pressure waves in the air—it’s so old fashioned!”
It takes me a moment to realize that by “pressure waves in the air” he means sound. He meanstalking.
I tell him he sounds pretty dissatisfied with the mechanisms that evolution has given us. I’m joking. He’s deadly serious.
“Yeah, I am,” he fires back without pausing. “We keep designing technology around the abilities we have as human beings. I want to redesign humans and technology together.” Which brings us back to the “wife chip.”
“It didn’t feel like pain or heat or seeing. It was like an entirely new sense. And that was part of the experiment: to see if the brain can adapt and take on new types of input and learn to understand. The brain is very clever like that—I just want to see how far we can push it.”
Pushing It: A Theme With Warwick
He talks about tinkering with the motorbike he had when he was in his teens: Removing the air filter made it go much faster “until it blew up.”
I ask him if he likes taking risks to see if he can learn something.
“That’s how science progresses. You have to have a stab. It’s always that balance of fear and excitement at the same time—pushing it a bit, I guess. You give it a go, then you push it a bit more and then you think, ‘Okay, I got away with that. I’ll push it a bit more.’”
Like implanting yourself with electrodes?
“I increase the voltage—what will happen? Well there’s only one way to find out. I’m alright at 40 Volts, push it up to 50.”
He admires people like Donald Campbell—who died trying to beat the water speed record—and Scott—who died on the way to the South Pole. Am I sensing a theme here? “I can feel for some of that,” he laughs, “but I’m still here.”
Who’s pushing it now, I ask? What’s the technology that is going to blindside us in five or ten years’ time?
“Funnily enough it’s about networks. Not just people and machines joining the internet, but also with wireless power, being able to free yourself…of a wired power supply. When that takes off, it’s going to make a huge difference.”
Environmentally, the impact is obvious: We’ll be able to rely on local, renewable generation to power the roads themselves. Logistically, it means that you don’t have to find the nearest gas station if your car charges as it goes. It will change the global geopolitical landscape—if we can be weaned off our reliance on gasoline. Inductive power supplies could do more to change the face of Middle-East politics than a century of diplomacy.
Captain Cyborg To The Rescue?
And so it is with futurists like Warwick: the status quo we take for granted suddenly seems malleable.
I ask how he feels about the nickname “Captain Cyborg” and the accusations that he deals more in science fiction than science. From the way he laughs I sense that he welcomes it.
“When Alexander Graham Bell made that first phone call it wasn’t like he couldn’t go outside because of all the attention: At first people couldn’t see the point in what he was doing. What’s the point of the first phone? But it didn’t stop there.
“I think what I’m doing is like that. Maybe when I’ve been dead ten years people will go ‘Oh! That’s what that was for.’ What you do in terms of prizes and degrees and all that—that’s absolutely nothing. It’s when you do something no-one’s done before.”
When you push it?
“Yeah. That’s what’s exciting.”
Don’t Underestimate The Future
As I shake Warwick’s hand I can’t help thinking that it’s lone tinkerers like these who generate more innovation than the typical Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur. He’s not trying to make it to an IPO; he doesn’t need to keep any shareholders happy.
Futurists like Warwick can do what they want. And what they want to do is push, until it tells us something or explodes. Preferably both.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.