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Digital Implants: Pick-me-ups for the Cyber Age

An interview with Kevin Warwick. The professor at the University of Reading (UK), on electronic drugs, the future of communication and the usefulness of implants.

Q: Prof. Warwick, you have performed an experiment on yourself in which an electronic implant was used to communicate with a computerised environment. What did it feel like?

A: It did take something of an effort to get accustomed to things happening around you without any action being performed, e.g. when doors open and lights switch on and off because the system has detected and identified you via the implant. Physically, it is like any other implant, and one gets used to it rather quickly. The important point was that we succeeded in sending and receiving information between the body and the computer.

Q: In a year and a half, you are planning another implant experiment. What is the purpose of digitised implant technology?

A: The main interest in these technologies is medical. You could use implants to compensate physical impairments, e.g. in somebody who is partly paralysed because of a stroke. If we succeed in influencing emotions the same way we can physical processes, then implants could also work as electronic drugs, as pain killers or anti-depressants. This would allow medicine less intrusive forms of treatment. The pharmaceutical and software industries are very interested in these kinds of applications. But there is a danger of these technologies being abused in the illicit drug market. Therefore we also need to think of applications for law enforcement, because such electronic drugs could be traded via the Internet, and the police need to be prepared for that.

Q: If you were to name a single technology as the most challenging and important in the years to come, which would it be?

A: I think our research points at the development of a new form of communication, a kind of speechless mind-to-mind communication. Language is a mere tool for the expression of our thoughts. Compared to electronic mind-to-mind communication, ordinary language will be what baby talk is today. This technology will change what being human and what society is all about.

Q: This suggests we are talking about a technology that involves great risks. How can such risks be dealt with on the level of society, and how do you assess the responsibility of the individual scientist?

A: The way how such risks will be dealt with will also be circumscribed by the technologies which are available. Technology also dictates how we assess such risks. Equally, technology will predetermine the moral and ethical standards we apply. Scientists must be completely open about the research, and make clear what the "pros and cons" are.

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