Father of the Cyborgs: The Irish neurologist who hacked his own brain

A new film about Phil Kennedy explores his groundbreaking scientific work

Not too far into this millennium, the Irish-born neurologist Phil Kennedy found himself at the centre of considerable media attention. The Washington Post compared his ground-breaking work to that of telephone-inventor Alexander Graham Bell. A medical colleague, Roy Bakay, while addressing an audience of neurosurgeons in 1998, described Kennedy’s work as “Star Wars stuff.”

“I was always interested in the brain,” says Kennedy, from his home in Georgia. “Even at medical school. I basically always wanted to go into research. At that time, the Irish state simply produced too many physicians. So half of us had to emigrate. Which we duly did. I went to Canada first, for clinical work. And then I got a PhD in Chicago. And after that I went to Atlanta in 1983 and I’ve been here ever since.”

The Limerick-born Kennedy began working toward a brain-computer interface while working at the Georgia Institute of Technology during the late 1980s. There, he successfully designed a neural electrode implant. In 1996, the device was implanted in one of his patients. But it was another patient, Johnny Ray, a dry-wall contractor, Vietnam veteran and jazz guitarist, who was left “locked in” after a massive stroke, who brought national and international interest to Kennedy’s work. Johnny Ray, as the news reports and the doctor himself had it, was the world’s “first cyborg.”

Augmentation, argues Kennedy, shouldn't be such a daunting prospect

In December of 1998, Kennedy was a guest on Good Morning America. He was there to explain how his brain-computer interface had allowed Johnny Ray, who was paralysed and dependent on a ventilator, to type words with his mind.

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“Over the last several hundred years – and especially in the last 50 years – we have made great strides in understanding how the brain works,” says Kennedy. “But we still don’t have a complete understanding. We understand how the heart works, for example, but the brain is way more complicated than that. We’ve restored motion using computers and robotic arms. You’ve probably seen the famous videos of a paralysed lady controlling John Donoghue’s robotic arm with her mind.

“There was a huge amount of press interest in that research. And rightly so. It was just mind blowing. A lot of people have gone into movement control. I’ve gone in the other direction. I’ve gone into speech.”

Decades ago, as recorded in Father of the Cyborgs, a new film chronicling Kennedy’s ground-breaking work, José Delgado, a neuroscientist at Yale, made a splash with an extraordinary stalled bull fight. It was a demonstration of a radio-controlled brain implant that could deliver shocks to the cortex and stop a charging bull, faced with a waving red flag, in its tracks.. “The human race is at an evolutionary turning point,” said Delgado in 1970. “We’re very close to having the power to construct our own mental functions. The question is, what sort of humans would we like, ideally, to construct?”

Augmentation, argues Kennedy, shouldn’t be such a daunting prospect.

“At some time in my life time – well, that depends how long I’m going to live – I think there is a possibility that we can augment the brain,” says Kennedy. “One idea I have – which I’m patenting by the way – is that everybody uses a cell phone, right? So why not have a cell phone in your scalp so it’s always available to you with the electronics going from a tiny hole into your speech motor cortex?

“Then if you are seeking to contact somebody or you need to get information, you can call or use the internet by thinking about it. I feel that would be a helpful augmentation. Some of your readers will probably disagree strongly. People don’t like anything involving the brain. I see patients all the time and the prospect of brain surgery totally freaks them out most of them. It shouldn’t. People have surgery elsewhere in the body.

“My favourite example is the pacemaker. Originally the pacemaker was a couple of leads attached to your chest and you had to carry the thing. If you dropped it, you were dead. So they were implanted in our bodies and now that’s routine. Everybody who needs a pacemaker gets one. People have no qualms about it. Brain surgery is not that bad. Sure, there can be complications. But I’ve had brain surgery.”

He travelled to Belize – a Caribbean mecca for medical tourism – to supervise the implantation of a set of glass and wire electrodes under his own scalp

He certainly has. In 2004, Kennedy put his implants in the brain of Erik Ramsay, a young locked-in patient who had been in a car accident and the subject of Kennedy’s book, Unlocking Erik: A Freedom Journey to Restore the Speech of Those with Locked-In Syndrome. The case made for a breakthrough in the science of speech recovery, but Erik’s faltering eyesight and health stalled the development of a speech prosthetic for the locked-in.

For years, Kennedy sought a suitable subject, someone perhaps in the early stages of ALS or another neurodegenerative illness, who had not lost their ability to speak. In 2014, he found his ideal subject: himself.

In June of that year, he travelled to Belize – a Caribbean mecca for medical tourism – to supervise the implantation of a set of glass and wire electrodes under his own scalp.

It was a rather lo-fi operation placed beside Elon Musk’s flashy unveiling of “FitBit for the brain”, notes Kennedy. Last August, Musk unveiled a pig named Gertrude with a chip – containing 3,000 electrodes and (allegedly) the potential for superhuman intelligence.

“You’ve probably heard of Elon Musk’s Neuralink,” smiles Kennedy. “He has thousands of electrodes and he’s going to solve the problems of the world. You don’t need thousands. A few hundred would be nice. I did it with 23 single units. I thought that was pretty cool even if I say so myself.”

Sadly, the incision over his implants did not heal and after 88 days, Kennedy was forced to remove the devices

In the history of scientific endeavour, a few pioneering souls have experimented on themselves. In the 1950s, Leo Sternbach, the inventor of Valium, tested a new class of tranquilizers called “benzodiazepines” on himself. In 1956, Werner Forssmann received a Nobel Prize after he became the first man to perform cardiac catheterization using his own body as a guinea pig. No one, save for Phil Kennedy, has, to date, orchestrated surgery on their own brain.

“This was the only way I could find out the answers I needed,” he says. “So I went to Belize and I went through the approval process down there. I needed someone who could speak but not speak in order to compare the data and to have a control period.”

His goal was to decipher the neural processes behind vocal sounds: to crack the neural code of speech. With his previous patients, there was no way to determine if they were thinking the words silently and if that process might differ from saying the words aloud. A second procedure in Belize was required to complete the process. Inevitably, there were complications.

“I was pretty out of it for a while,” recalls Kennedy. “I had some brain swelling but that was probably more down to blood pressure than anything else. I had a little bit of a tremor but I took some meds and that disappeared. I was weak on the right side but that recovered. I knew those things could happen. They didn’t bother me at all. I was anxious but I wasn’t depressed about it.”

Upon returning to the US, Kennedy spent some seven weeks seeing patients at his clinic by day and experimenting upon himself by night. Sadly, the incision over his implants did not heal and after 88 days, Kennedy was forced to remove the devices. He wishes he had more time.

“I would have kept collecting data if I could; that would’ve been fabulous,” says Kennedy. “It was important data but unfortunately the electronics we had were too bulky. The results were great even though they were limited. I was able to decode silent and audible speech and compare them to a control period.

“Recording from different electrodes in my brain, I was able to decode the phonemes, as we call them, and the phrases for both audible and silent speech. Now we know how to do it, I’ll be anxious to do it again.”

In 2012, Kennedy published a hard science fiction story under the name Alpha O. Royal; it describes a Ghost in the Shell/Matrix future wherein people can inhabit a virtual world through neural stimulation.

“Imagination is good,” says the doctor. “I really believe it’s individuals who make the difference not committees. Committees can make a difference, of course. But usually it’s like a horse shaped like a camel. They’re kind of awkward. That’s always been the way and it always will until computers take us over. But they won’t have imaginations like we do.”

How does he feel about the title of the new film – and a phrase that has often been employed to describe his work over the years – “Father of the Cyborgs”?

“I’m just glad it’s not Son of Cyborgs,” he laughs. “That would be much worse.”

Father of the Cyborgs premieres online as part of the Dublin International Film Festival on Friday, March 12th