A Reason to Cross the Final Boundary of Skin: What Can Healthcare Learn From a Cyborg Professor?

Dr. Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at The University of Reading, England, is a researcher and experimenter working at the limits of our tolerance for adapting our bodies and breeching the boundary of the skin. Initially trained as an engineer, Dr. Warwick has conducted research at the cutting edge of the integration of technology into the human body. He has developed and used sensing and communications technology like the Utah Array/ BrainGate, which was integrated into the median nerves of his left arm during a control system in a months-long experiment in human computer interaction.

In the past, human beings have viewed the limits of our knowledge or experience in terms of a geographic metaphor. The limits of our worldly knowledge were marked on the Hunt-Lenox globe of 1502-1503 as “HC SVNT DRACONES” or “Here be Dragons.” Shakespeare famously gave us a conceptualization of the realm of death as the “undiscovered country,” as Hamlet pondered his fate. And Gene Roddenberry classified space as “the final frontier.”

All of these statements assume that our knowledge and experience of the world is external to ourselves and that a simple act of exploration will disperse the dragons and bring that area into view. However, we are currently at a technological turning point. Developments in technology and our own understanding of ourselves are turning our desire for exploration in on ourselves.

Once hidden from view, our bodies are now more fully open to us as territories to explore, and we are beginning to see the need to change our conception of the interrelationship of boundaries and knowledge – particularly because our skin presents a boundary that seems almost too difficult to cross.

Even medicine does not want to cross the boundary of the skin. Many of the medical technologies we have developed in recent decades that have been devoted to exploring the body have been imaging technologies that avoid breaking the skin and laparoscopic technologies that minimize the impact of crossing that boundary. However, given that we are undergoing a shift in the way technology is conceptualized in our society, the very notion of what kind of technological interpenetration of our bodies is acceptable has changed. We now more regularly speak of “cyborgs” in the same breath as wearable technologies.

People like Dr. Kevin Warwick, who works as a researcher, alongside a number of others in a growing “cyborg movement,” are actively exploring the possibilities of integrating technology into their bodies in different ways.

Dr. Warwick’s work is a clear demonstration of what is possible by eliminating the view of our body as an undiscovered country. In his opinion, he sees this as a way to unlock new frontiers of possibility, particularly in the areas of therapeutic medicine and in how we interact with others and the world around us. He is an example of a new group of curious experimenters who have begun to push the boundaries of what is possible. And with this push comes new technological possibilities that are helping us redefine what the human body is, how it can be used, and what kinds of transgressions through the skin are desirable.

Nevertheless, the skin is still a major boundary that most people are unwilling to cross. This presents a difficult problem: The skin may be a boundary that is preventing us from expanding the limits of our technological future. Only by overcoming this perception can we expand the possibilities for a very specific kind of human advancement. But while these experimenters are pushing the technological boundaries, this shift necessitates a complementary social change to bring its promise to fruition. The skin is too fundamental a boundary. Crossing it can only be achieved through social and cultural change, contextualizing new technologies with the potential to cross it in a beneficial way.

Dr. Warwick’s research has, to date, largely been focused on neural control, communication, and trying to find ways to capitalize on that to improve our ability to develop technology that seamlessly works in our bodies. He sees technology and social change working together to allow us to develop new technologies, with our changing view of crossing the skin as a key element in creating new medical therapies. “The body has been regarded historically in terms of mechanical aspects and chemical aspects, and hence, the typical medical treatment has been chemical. Drug companies are very powerful. But in the new century, if you like, new treatments have come online because of this different way of looking at the body.”

In his opinion, there is much to be gained by continuing to look inwards, into the body, and to find the possibilities for combining future technologies and our own internal systems. “It has historically been that body is encapsulated in the skin and now that’s not the case at all. The important thing in your body is your brain and the signals of your nervous system. And ordinarily, those are inside your body. But if we now pull them outside, then your body, the bounds of it, are completely different. Your bounds are wherever your nervous system takes you, but your nervous system is now plugged into a network and hence wherever your network takes you, which opens up not just individual bodies.”

A brave research scientist, Dr. Warwick has used himself as a test subject and he has spent months with wires connected directly to his nervous system. This enabled him to connect his brain directly to a computer and to use its electrical impulses as control inputs to interact with computers and robotic armatures. Some of these experiments have even allowed him to control a robotic hand in his lab in the UK from another lab in the United States.

These possibilities are near at hand, largely driven by advances in technology and in the social understanding of the body. Because it is a small leap from wearable technologies to embedded technologies, this may be just around the corner from becoming more mainstream. There are now compelling enough reasons for many more people to explore the possibilities of crossing the skin. However, he does not see it ending here. Dr. Warwick has his sights set on enhancing communication. “To me, it opens up the whole possibility of communicating brain to brain. What is that going to mean? Where is that going to go? How soon will it happen? The answer is, I have no idea. But it is extremely powerful. It means a whole new opening for humans.”

Your bounds are wherever your nervous system takes you, but your nervous system is now plugged into a network and hence wherever your network takes you, which opens up not just individual bodies

All of this is supported by new understandings on how exactly to help the body accept implants. “Researchers have gone well down the line in dealing with materials that under certain circumstances the body is quite happy to accept. And when you look at electrical circuitry and interacting with that… the body cannot only accept it but the way it acts, it can actually help the connections. That is the case when you are dealing with neural circuitry: The body puts a protective mechanism up and that actually pulls, technology pulls implants in.”

Dr. Warwick’s work as researcher is pushing the boundaries that are allowing others to conceptualize of a host of applications. One major example is the rise of ‘embeddable’ technologies where the skin is modified to suit new uses. In 2012, Nokia patented an experimental magnetic tattoo that vibrates with a mobile phone stimulus. Others, like experimental engineer Jim Mielke, have taken this a few steps further. His entry to the Core 77 Greener Gadgets Design Competition in February 2008 was a blood-powered subdermal screen that he likened to an electronic tattoo. This idea expands the limits of something that has only just become widely acceptable, and offers a vision for how we are coming to terms with what can, or cannot, get under our skin.

It is here that new technologies offer greater possibilities. Now that we, as a society, are increasingly comfortable with crossing the threshold of the skin with technologies that enhance our bodies and expand our ability to interact with the world, we may be approaching a new ability to know what lies in this undiscovered country. However, this knowledge will not just be about our own bodies, but what lies in the undiscovered country of another’s mind. This knowledge is offered only because we are now finding better reasons to cross that final boundary of our skin to explore what lies beneath.

Read more about the integration of technology and the human body with:
Hacking the Body to Hack The System: What can Healthcare learn from a Biohacker?
The Other Needle Experience: What can Healthcare learn from a Tattoo Artist?

Featured in the MISC 2015 : The Creative Process Issue.

Paul Hartley is the head of human futures and a senior resident anthropologist at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

the author

Paul Hartley

Paul Hartley is a former resident anthropologist at Idea Couture.