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Virus warning: Cyborgs at risk

Humans will upgrade their nervous systems with technology, a professor predicts--and then they'll be open to computer viruses.

Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University in England, is looking forward to becoming a cyborg again.

But the academic, who has wired his nervous system up to a computer and put an RFID chip in his arm, is also warning that the day will come when computer viruses can infect humans as well as PCs.

Speaking this week at Consult Hyperion's fifth Digital Identity Forum in London, Warwick spoke of a future when those who aren't cyborgs will be considered the odd ones.

"For those of you that want to stay'll be a subspecies in the future," he said.

Warwick said he believes there are advantages for a human being networked to a computer. It would mean an almost "infinite knowledge base," he said, adding that it would be akin to upgrading humans.

The security problems that dog modern computing won't be much different from those that could plague the cyborgs of the future. "We're looking at software viruses and biological viruses becoming one and the same," Warwick said. "The security problems (will) be much, much greater."

If humans were networked, the implications of being hacked would be far more serious, and attitudes toward hackers would be radically changed, he added. At the moment, hackers' illegal input into a network is tolerated, he claimed. But if humans were connected to the Internet and hacks carried out, that would push the realms of tolerance, he said.

In Warwick's own networking experiments, in which he used his body's connectivity to operate a mechanical arm in the United States, the scientist didn't publicize the IP address of his arm in case someone hijacked it.

While networked humans may be a significant way off, Warwick's experiments are intended to have a practical purpose. He has been working with Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the United Kingdom on the possible implications of a networked nervous system for those with spinal injuries. Researchers are exploring, for example, whether people might be able to control a wheelchair through their nervous system.

Nevertheless, Warwick said the idea of marrying humanity and technology isn't currently a popular one. Talking of his RFID experiments, he said, "I got a lot of criticism, I don't know why."

Putting RFID chips in arms is now more than a novelty. Partygoers at one club in Spain can choose to have RFID chips implanted in their arms as a means of paying for their drinks. Some Mexican law enforcement officials had the chips implanted to fend off attempted kidnappings.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also recently approved the use of RFID in humans. One potential application would be allowing medical staff to draw information on a patient's health from the chip.

Jo Best of reported from London.