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Dr Phil Kennedy with one of his patients, attempting to interface the brain with a computer.

Clare film maker’s work on ‘father of cyborgs’ airs on RTE

THE groundbreaking work of a neuroscientist known as the father of the cyborgs is the subject of an Ennis film maker’s documentary to be screened this Thursday.

RTE will screen David Burke’s film, which is called Father of the Cyborgs, this Thursday night.

It’s about groundbreaking Limerick neuroscientist Dr Phil Kennedy, who made global headlines in the 1990s for implanting several wire electrodes in the brain of a paralyzed man and
then teaching the locked-in patient to control a computer cursor with his mind. 

He was compared to Alexander Graham Bell in The Washington Post and became known as ‘The Father of the Cyborgs’.

He made headlines again in 2014 when he travelled to South America and had tiny electrodes implanted inside his own brain in order to continue his research.

The documentary examines the ethics of self-experimentation and the unintended consequences of a future where technology and human brains combine.

It’s David’s third film, with the others having won warm reviews, just as Father of the Cyborgs is doing.

“The first one we did was a one-hour one for TG4, it was about the Rás Tailteann cycling race which was started by the IRA, so it was kind of a mix of sport and politics.

“There’s a Celtic media festival and that won the overall prize at that, in 2013. We did a second documentary in 2016, it was called Crash and Burn, that was on RTE, it was about a racing car driver called Tommy Byrne, his moniker was the greatest driver you never saw. He was really talented, a bit rough around the edges.”

He felt that the area of bio-engineering was certain to have some interesting stories and then he came upon the story of Dr Kennedy.

“For this one I was looking to do something in bio-engineering, it was just logical that there’d be interesting people involved in this field.

“The field that Kennedy himself started is called brain computer interfacing. It’s kind of where you take a bit of the brain and connect it to a computer. Mainly it’s for people who are locked in, who can’t communicate at all, it allows them to get some basic signals out, they could initially move a cursor around a screen or something like that.”

David said that Elon Musk and Facebook have now invested in the sector, but whereas they see potential commercial opportunities, the Limerick surgeon’s motivation is altruistic.

“Kennedy is purely interested in helping people to restore speech, who are completely locked in, with no way of communicating.”

With the Limerick surgeon without funds or suitable patients a number of years ago, he travelled to South America for an implant into his own brain.

“He (Dr Kennedy) was working with a boy called Erik Ramsey for years, Erik’s health deteriorated so he wasn’t able to work with him anymore. He had been trying to restore Erik’s speech, after he was completely locked in. He implanted Erik and he was able to move a cursor around a screen and make basic sounds.

“Kennedy needed to know when Erik moved the cursor around if it was by accident or if he was consciously trying to do it.

“Basically what Kennedy did was implant the speech area of his own brain and got proof of concept that it worked.”

It’s an extreme measure to take, and he had health problems for a time as a result.

“He had complications afterwards, it wasn’t straightforward, he had seizures and everything. Kennedy himself is very calm, he doesn’t get too worked up about most things. He said not to worry about it, that his brain had swelled up and that’s why he was having the seizures and he knew the swelling would go down.”

The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, one of the top festivals in the world. It has been shown at a number of other festivals since then. 

Right now David is working on another two documentaries, and he says that it is now very possible to work as a documentary maker wherever you live, something that wasn’t always true.

“I think in this day and age it doesn’t really matter. Twenty years ago it would have been an advantage to be based in Dublin. Ken O’Sullivan is in Lahinch and he is making brilliant documentaries. Once you have good ideas the doors will open for you.”

The show airs on Thursday, November 11 on RTE1 at 10.15pm

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