Peter Scott-Morgan stands, wide-eyed and tearful. “Good. Grief.” he says quietly. “I was unprepared for the emotion... It’s quite extraordinary. It really is.”
Using an exoskeleton, Dr 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, however, is just the first in the 62-year-old’s bold journey to control his disease by becoming the world’s first, fully fledged cyborg. “Think of it as a science experiment,” he laughs. “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, Dr Scott-Morgan wants the exoskeleton to encase his upper body, giving him superhuman strength and the ability to tower above ‘flesh and blood’ humans. A mind-reading computer will be plugged directly into his brain, expressing his thoughts almost instantly. Meanwhile, his paralysed face will be replaced by a hyper-realistic avatar that will move in time with a speech synthesiser.
“In a rather perverse way the future looks like it’s going to be rather exciting,” writes Dr 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. Filmed over two years, the 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, Dr 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.
He’s already made some radical changes to his body. In 2018, he ‘re-plumbed’ his stomach so that he would no longer have to rely on a carer to eat or go to the bathroom.
That required a tripleoscopy: three separate, high-risk surgeries to insert a feeding tube in his stomach, a catheter into his bladder and a colostomy bag on to his colon. 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.
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. The problem was, it would mean losing his distinctive voice, and with it, his ability to connect fully with those he loved.
“When I email people who are locked in, they say of all the faculties that they lost, speech was the worst, the most traumatic, the one that made them feel most disabled,” he says. “It is impossible, even if they use text-to-speech... They are not able to communicate their emotion.”
It’s the fate Dr 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. These have been used to create a synthetic voice that sounds almost like his original.
To help preserve his charismatic personality, Dr Scott-Morgan has enlisted the help of Lama Nachman, director of Anticipatory Computing at Intel Labs and the woman who helped rebuild Prof Hawking’s speech system. Over several months, the pair have developed a radical plan to give Dr 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 Prof 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 learnt from Dr Scott-Morgan – crossing a controversial line in what it means to be human.
There is, however, a major problem: how to prevent the AI from taking control. “It’s problematic,” Dr Nachman tells me. “Peter will always have the pressure of picking a phrase the AI recommends rather than constructing his own speech. It’s simply quicker. [But] ethically, you have to be concerned about this.”
The team at Intel is now trying to create a way for Dr Scott-Morgan to teach the AI by flagging when a phrase is not quite what he had in mind. Over time, the AI will become more intelligent, merging its ‘personality’ with Dr Scott-Morgan’s.
“I am increasingly turning into a full cyborg and more AI will simply make me even more of a cyborg,” he says. “I will never stop being human, but maybe I will help to change what it means to be human. It’s a hugely exciting time to be alive.”
The Daily Telegraph