Popular science and the human imagination have long dreamt of a world where man and machine work as one to make everyday life easier.
Images of man-machine interfacing such as those by Jean-Marc Côté from the En L’An 2000 series of illustrations, or artwork by Côté, Syd Mead and Anton Brzezinski, as well as any number of examples of spotless, effortless futuristic homes and living seen in industrial films of the ’50s and ’60s still form the basis for what we imagine the future will look like.
Even as the calendar pages flip past the far-flung futures of 2000 or 2010 that those earlier foundational works imagined, we still wait for the World of Tomorrow to be our world, today.
In popular culture, the men and women of science who work to mix machines with bodies are all of a type: the mad scientist surrounded by test tubes and candyfloss-pink brains floating in jars. Messy-haired boffins pushing science and technology to their limit.
But Dr Phil Kennedy, neurologist and subject of David Burke’s The Father of the Cyborgs, is a well-put-together guy, “the most handsome man I’d ever seen”, is how he’s described by one of the documentary’s interviewees early in the picture.
Dr Kennedy may not look the part of a maniacal movie scientist, but as Burke’s film takes us through his pioneering life and work with brain-computer interfaces, we see that same wild ambition and unbridled enthusiasm that is needed to make science fact out of the stuff of science fiction.
Burke drops us in at the deep end. His subject is pretty heady stuff and so it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and a little lost in this introductory sea of information.
Much of the opening of The Father of the Cyborgs is made up of footage from old sci-fi films, newsreel and compute-generated run-throughs of the human nervous system blown up to such a level of detail that they look more like fancy computer screensavers than anything tangibly corporeal.
The brain-computer interfaces Kennedy worked with are an evolution of prior research into the human brain, and chillingly, mind control. Burke provides a snappy history of neurological research. We see grisly footage of lobotomies and other crude brain surgeries. Even in black and white, these scenes are not for the faint-hearted.
The film also introduces the groundbreaking work of Dr José Manuel Rodríguez Delgado, famed for his study of the effects of electrical stimulation on the brain. We see Rodríguez Delgado playing at matador with a bull, and then as the bull charges for the doctor, an electrical shock to the animal’s brain stops it in its tracks with no signs of aggression.
Kennedy’s devices are not dissimilar to those seen in that archival footage, but their purpose is to receive information from the brain. Kennedy walks us through initial experimentation with radio waves. By wiring an electrode to the human brain a “popping” sound could be detected on a computer. Further research by Kennedy and Melody Moore Jackson found that the waveforms produced by the popping corresponded to brain activity.
In the 1990s Kennedy and Jackson worked on translating brain activity to computer instructions. Kennedy tells us that at the time of filming he has created six “cyborgs”, including himself.
For Kennedy, human-computer interfaces are a means of helping people. Among his subjects were patients with ALS and severe paralysis. We hear from David Jayne, an ALS patient, who speaks through a computer thanks to Kennedy and Jackson’s research. Jayne tells the camera that “cyberspace is a level playing field” and that the human-computer interface “made me feel human again”.
Later in the film we see footage of Erik Ramsey, another of Kennedy’s patients, who was left paralysed after a horrific car crash. It’s through working with Ramsey that Kennedy embarked on a controversial, headline-making journey of his own.
Ramsey’s data seemed to suggest a path for communication, but in order to be certain, Kennedy opted to have the same glass-and-gold electrodes implanted in his own brain. The doctor knew he would not get approval from the FDA for this procedure, and ended up a medical tourist in Belize.
The section of the film dealing with Kennedy’s elective brain surgery brings to mind the science-fiction footage from the start of The Father of the Cyborgs. Kennedy’s unbridled ambition to help is matched only by his refusal to see reason. For Kennedy this was a problem no one else could solve – but for his family and friends it was a step too far.
The doctor recalls fights leading up to his departure for Central America: his daughter was heartbroken and his then girlfriend left him. The impression is that the consequences of these actions are still felt today. Only one of Kennedy’s children, his son Dermot, speaks in the documentary.
Kennedy inserts a DVD into a laptop and walks us through footage of his own brain surgery as if it were one of his patients’. He warns the viewer that what we are about to see is hard to watch.
The footage is more stomach-turning when it’s in colour, that’s for certain. Still, the doctor smiles his way through a recollection of the surgery and its aftermath. Burke also speaks to Joel Cervantes, the surgeon who performed the operation, and his remembrances are far more harrowing than Kennedy’s.
For many weeks after the operation Kennedy was incapable of communicating through speech or writing. Cervantes, like Kennedy’s son, still seems shaken up by the experience.
For Kennedy, the procedure was a success. He tells us that the electrodes are no longer operational but that the results of the experiment helped in improving the latter years of Ramsey’s life and the lives of other locked-in patients.
A sit-down interview with Kennedy and Ramsey’s father shows us the worth of Kennedy’s ambition. Each man considers the other a hero.
This scene precedes the final section of the film, which sees Kennedy’s research winding down due to a lack of funding. Always unflappable, Kennedy is hopeful for the future of his work even as his own research takes a backseat to AI-driven interfaces.
The here and now, and the foreseeable future of man-machine interfaces presented to us by Burke in the film’s final section is not a bright one. Talking heads, including To be A Machine author Mark O’Connell, speak to the ethical and moral uncertainty that awaits us.
The prospect of downloading articles or e-books straight to your eyeballs is appealing in a The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes way, but who owns the information that our uploaded brainwaves are putting out into cyberspace? The possibilities, we’re told, are limitless, unknowable and a potential cyberpunk nightmare.
Burke comes back to Kennedy for a moment, standing at the water’s edge and staring out into the unknown with the audience. Philip Kennedy’s future of electrodes and radio waves seems like quaint retrofuturism in the wake of the high-concept electric dreams that we’ve just heard, but for all of their wiring and circuits, Kennedy’s “cyborgs” feel more human and more humane than what lies ahead of us.
The Father of the Cyborgs screened as part of the Dublin International Film Festival. A release from Wildcard Distribution is forthcoming.