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The Irishman they call 'The Father Of The Cyborgs'

A new documentary looks at the work of Dr Phil Kennedy, who is based in the USA.

Dr Phil Kennedy about to be operated on in Belize.
Dr Phil Kennedy about to be operated on in Belize.

A NEW IRISH documentary looks at the fascinating life and career of an Irishman who has been at the forefront of experiments involving the human brain.

Neuroscientist Dr Phil Kennedy is the subject of The Father Of The Cyborgs, which will debut at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival in early March. Director of the documentary, David Burke, spoke to TheJournal.ie about the process – and why the film even includes footage of an operation on Kennedy’s own brain. 

Burke stumbled on Kennedy’s story while looking for a subject for his next documentary. “I was looking to do something in bioengineering. It kind of made logical sense that there had to be interesting people in the field of bioengineering,” he explains. He came across ”this short little piece about this guy that experimented on his own brain”, and had “this eureka moment. He’s the guy. Yes, please, I’ll be having some of this.”

The more he read up on Kennedy (who runs the company Neural Signals) and his field, the more he knew it was something he had to cover.

“It was more about the backstory of it, and some of the dubious experiments that were done [on people's brains] in the 50s and 60s.” This was added to his knowledge that people like Elon Musk, and corporations like Facebook, were also getting interested in the communication between the human brain and technology.

“Saying all that, the thing that surprised me the most about it was that Philip grew up in Limerick. I just couldn’t believe that,” said Burke.

He met with Kennedy in Ireland and did an initial interview, and from there built up the trust that allowed him go to the US to film with him.

Kennedy was very open to the documentary being made, which Burke put down to him being a scientist. “It’s in their nature, you know what I mean? They’re people that innovate. They’re open to new ideas. But I still had to build a trust with him.”  

Kennedy began his experiments while working at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the 1980s, patenting a new type of electrode which could be implanted into the brain. Animal tests took place first before he was allowed in 1996 to begin implantation in humans. 

The impetus for Kennedy’s work is in trying to send signals out of the brain, rather than send signals in. His major work has been with patients described as ‘locked in’, due to conditions like Motor Neuron Disease. His work is on trying to help them communicate using a computer after having an implant put in their brain. 

He first came to prominence in 1998 when he worked with Johnny Ray, who was ‘locked in’ following a stroke. After implanting two electrodes into Ray’s brain (at the part which controlled his left hand), Ray was able to use his brain to think about using a computer mouse with his left hand, which in turn moved a cursor. This then enabled him to spell by moving the cursor across letters on a screen. 

As the documentary shows, Kennedy’s work has encountered many obstacles along the way, including difficulties at times raising funding. 

The documentary explores the issues around experimentation on brains, looking back at others’ work as well as treatments like electroshock therapy. It forces the viewer to ask: What happens if you can implant something into a person’s brain? What are the moral and ethical quandaries that you now find yourself with? And what if the person who uses the technology does not have the motivations of someone like Kennedy, which are to help a person rather than to have power over them?

It’s a hugely complicated and multi-layered subject, and Burke admits it would have been easy for them to fall into ‘rabbit holes’ while making the documentary. But it’s clearly made with us non-neurologists in mind, and so concepts and neurological facts are explained in a clear way. 

“We wanted to keep it grounded in reality and keep it grounded in science,” says Burke.  

‘The cameraman nearly fell out the window’

The most fascinating – and eyebrow-raising – moment of the documentary is when Kennedy travels to Belize to have electrodes implanted in his own brain. He did this in 2014 so that he could gather new information and data that would help further his research. 

There are some very short scenes of the actual operation (which this journalist was far too squeamish to watch). That Kennedy allowed them to be used is proof of his faith in Burke and his team. 

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While they were filming scenes in Kennedy’s office where he showed them the footage of the operation, Burke said “the cameraman nearly fell out the window”.

Said Burke of Kennedy’s operation: “He knows he’s not harming any other people, it was all on him essentially, health-wise, if anything happened. His way of explaining it is that he invented the procedure essentially, he knows all the risks. So to Phil it was a calculated risk. He knew the risks, and he felt that… ‘I think weighing everything I should be okay’. That’s how he justified it to himself.”

The name Dr Phil Kennedy isn’t a very well known one outside the scientific community in Ireland. Does Burke hope that this film will change that?

“I hope Phil does get some recognition for what he did. Phil is… he’s pretty modest. He’d probably be embarrassed if he heard me saying this, but I heard a saying before that ‘excellence hits the target that’s very far away and genius hits a target that no one else can see’.

“There wasn’t very many people trying to do what Phil was doing in the 80s and early 90s. He has taken the field and brought it on to certain levels, now that baton will be passed on to a newer generation. That’s all any scientist can really do. And he’s done that.”

From VMDIFF, the film is set to go on to other festivals, and will be shown on RTÉ towards the end of the year. It was funded by RTÉ, Screen Ireland, and the Alfred P Sloan Foundation.

The Father Of The Cyborgs will be screened as part of Virgin Media Dublin International Festival on 12 March at 7pm. Tickets cost €8.50 and once the content becomes available on 12 March, you have 72 hours to start watching. Visit Diff.ie to see the entire festival programme and book tickets. 

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