Ailing scientist is trying to save his life by becoming world's first full-fledged cyborg


Summary generated on August 21, 2020

    This is cyborg territory, and I intend to be a human guinea pig to see just how far we can turn science fiction into reality'.

    Using an exoskeleton, Scott-Morgan is experiencing what it is like to stand for the first time in months after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2017, the same incurable condition that killed scientist Stephen Hawking.

    The remarkable step is just the first in the 62-year-old's bold journey to control his disease by becoming the world's first, full-fledged cyborg.

    "This is cyborg territory, and I intend to be a human guinea pig to see just how far we can turn science fiction into reality."

    Eventually, Scott-Morgan wants the exoskeleton to encase his upper body, giving him superhuman strength and the ability to tower above "Flesh and blood" humans.

    His paralyzed face will be replaced by a hyper-realistic avatar that will move in time with a speech synthesizer.

    "In a rather perverse way the future looks like it's going to be rather exciting," writes Scott-Morgan on his blog, with characteristic optimism.

    "In a 'boys with their toys' sort of a way, potentially even a bit fun."

    His inspiring mission has become the subject of a documentary by Sugar Films, Peter: The Human Cyborg, which is set to run later this month.

    Filmed over two years, the British scientist from Torquay in south Devon takes viewers on a deeply personal quest to find the technologies and people that can help him become part-robot, part-machine.

    With a master's in artificial intelligence and a PhD in robotics, Scott-Morgan hopes to find a better way for people with MND to live once they become "Locked-in," suffering with a mind that is fully alert but a body that is unable to move.

    "You feel very afraid watching him deteriorate," says Francis, his husband and partner of 40 years in an emotional scene.

    Scott-Morgan says he isn't deteriorating but becoming a new version of himself - one that will eventually pave the way for a breed of humans that can augment their capabilities using technology.

    He's already made some radical changes to his body.

    With each procedure, he risked accelerating the progress of MND. "You can't help but be impressed by the way he wants to take control," says Marie Wright, his anaesthesiologist.

    In a rather perverse way the future looks like it's going to be rather exciting.

    Last year, he decided to undergo a laryngectomy to separate his oesophagus and trachea.

    The idea was to prevent saliva from running into his lungs as the paralysis moved up his body towards his chest and throat.

    It's the fate Scott-Morgan fears the most, and the one that he's spent most time trying to address.

    Prior to losing his voice, he spent hours recording words and sentences with the help of scientists at Edinburgh-based CereProc.

    Alongside this, a photorealistic virtual avatar has been designed that moves its lips in time with his speech, providing facial expressions, such as laughter and surprise, in time with the conversation.

    That isn't quite enough for the cyborg pioneer.

    To help preserve his charismatic personality, Scott-Morgan has enlisted the help of Lama Nachman, director of Anticipatory Computing at Intel Labs and the woman who helped rebuild Hawking's speech system.

    Over several months, the pair have developed a radical plan to give Scott-Morgan's cyborg its own artificial intelligence.

    Instead of answering a question by laboriously typing out individual letters using a gaze tracker, in a similar way to Hawking, he will rely on the AI to provide a full and instant response.

    Eventually, the machine will speak for itself using phrases it has learned from Scott-Morgan - crossing a controversial line in what it means to be human.

    Other technologies to make his cyborg vision a reality, such as a self-driving exoskeleton, aren't quite ready yet.

    The scientist hopes he can exist completely outside his physical body, with his personality, traits and knowledge downloaded on to a machine.

    What's striking about Scott-Morgan is not just his constant optimism and bravery, but his ability to find radical answers to problems that have confounded Britain's brightest minds.

    "I got very used to not feeling that I had to fit, because for a long time the world was telling me really, really didn't fit. After 40 years of breaking the rules, I'm still saying, 'let's not do it the way it's done before, let's do something different.'".