Professor Kevin Warwick tells his DI story

Professor Kevin Warwick, Chair of Cybernetics at Reading University, is no stranger to the public eye. Throughout his academic career, his research into artificial intelligence, robotics and biomedical engineering have earned him awards and recognition, identifying him as one of the leading scientists in his field.

It wasn’t until one particular aspect of his work hit the headlines back in 1998, however, that Professor Warwick began to realise that some of the public’s eyes were fixed firmly on cyberspace, where his burgeoning digital identity was unlocking something of a Pandora’s Box of comment and criticism.

Project Cyborg saw Professor Warwick undergo the implantation of a device into his left arm in order to link his nervous system directly to a computer. The media went mad for the story. “It went a lot bigger news wise than we thought it would, and it became a case of picking and choosing who you spoke to,” says Professor Warwick.

“One of them was this thing called The Register, which I’d never heard of, so it was way down the list and as a result I never got back them. That seemed to trigger a certain amount of negative coverage, and they came up with this whole Captain Cyborg thing!”

The maverick IT news site’s dedicated, and growing, readership picked up the story of the scientist with a chip in his arm and ran with it, making Professor Warwick suddenly aware that his reputation was now under the scrutiny of a whole new, and much wider community. “Outside of those who are into the Web, people had never heard of it,” he says, “but there’s a certain crowd that are into it.

“I seem to have quite a Register presence, either under Kevin Warwick, or Captain Cyborg, and that’s caught the attention of some. So I get asked to do presentations at hackers conferences and things like that – as this renegade sort of guy – which is quite nice in a way!”

With its tongue-in-cheek style, The Register’s influence on Professor Warwick’s digital identity has been significant and, to quote the late Douglas Adams, ‘mostly harmless’. “It seems to have a positive/negative feeling in the Web community,” he says, “as though there’s a presence there, that is sort of a negative but it’s not a negative.

“The coverage is generally light hearted – you just have to put up with some of things they say that can be quite near the knuckle.”

Some journalistic contributions to Professor Warwick’s online presence have not been so welcome. “The Guardian has been more a bane of my life,” he explains, “their Bad Science columnist seems to think a lot of himself. Once, when writing about the last implant, the one in my nervous system, he commented that I ‘could’ve put it in my front pocket’.

“He was trying to give the completely wrong impression about it – implying it was just a piece of showmanship. The piece was factually incorrect, and trying to give completely the wrong information,” he says.

After attempting, in vain, to contact the journalist involved and get the piece corrected, Professor Warwick says he feels this episode represents  one of the more negative aspects of having information about himself available on the internet. “Whether we like it or not, this column has an influence among the Web community because the Guardian is available online,” he comments.

Striking a balance between what people say about you, what you want them to say about you, and how that information is used is a dilemma facing anyone with a digital identity out there for pretty much all to see. Professor Warwick insists that he does not have a campaign to guide what is written about him on the Web, but as a high profile academic with a scientific reputation to protect, keeps a wary eye on the more prominent elements of his digital identity – such as his entry on Wikipedia.

“I was relatively fortunate that some people put up a page on me quite early on – and it seems the longer the page has been there, the more influential it can be. So it’s been quite a positive thing,” he says. “I don’t want it to be biased, but I want it to be reasonably balanced, so I keep an eye on it.”

“I think it is important in relation to the students. They do a lot of their research on Wikipedia, so it has quite a big influence. Having a balanced perspective  is therefore quite important. After all, if you have something on there that says you are a wally, then students will think you are a wally!”

Despite the potential pitfalls, though, Professor Warwick says he believes it is essential in this day and age, where people turn increasingly to the Web for information, that senior academics such as himself have a strong digital identity – to put their work and their arguments out there for people to see. The key to making it work for you, and hopefully not against you, he says, is in trying to retain a degree of control. “There tends to be an avalanche effect – if something is said often enough then people believe it, so you have to retain a certain amount of influence, not just let it run loose.”