Saturday, July 11, 2009

Good News, Neural Devices Connect Brain, Computers: Bad News, Same Thing

"The next hacking frontier: Your brain?"
Wired, via CNN (July 10, 2009)

"Hackers who commandeer your computer are bad enough. Now scientists worry that someday, they'll try to take over your brain.

"In the past year, researchers have developed technology that makes it possible to use thoughts to operate a computer, maneuver a wheelchair or even use Twitter -- all without lifting a finger. But as neural devices become more complicated, and go wireless, some scientists say the risks of "brain hacking" should be taken seriously.

" 'Neural devices are innovating at an extremely rapid rate and hold tremendous promise for the future,' said computer security expert Tadayoshi Kohno of the University of Washington.

" 'But if we don't start paying attention to security, we're worried that we might find ourselves in five or 10 years saying we've made a big mistake.'

"Hackers tap into personal computers all the time. But what would happen if they focused their nefarious energy on neural devices, such as the deep-brain stimulators used to treat Parkinson's and depression, or electrode systems for controlling prosthetic limbs?..."

This article gives a pretty good overview of where we're at, in terms of devices which are designed to interface with nerve cells - including the ones in our brains. The writer takes the topic beyond the technology, to issues that will be easier to deal with, if people start thinking about them now.

Problems with hackers breaking into our minds and watching our thoughts isn't on the radar. What is quite foreseeable is someone getting past the (light) security protecting today's pacemakers and other 'connected' medical gadgetry.

With or without malicious intent, a pacemaker with compromised software could kill someone.

Another possibility raised by the author is 'self-hacking,' where someone with implants used to treat a disorder in the brain could 'self-prescribe' stimulation of the brain's reward centers.

Not going to happen?

Some of this already has. The article points out that in November 2007 and March 2008, tech-savvy people altered epilepsy support websites: making them display flashing animations which caused seizures on some users.

Besides: who hasn't heard of someone overclocking their computer, or reprogramming a chip in their car for 'better' performance?

Be Afraid? No: Be Thoughtful

This article reminded me of one of Charles Schultz's Peanuts comic strips. Snoopy was lying on the roof of his doghouse, thinking about how much better he had it, compared to his ancestors. He had a warm, dry place to sleep, food delivered at frequent intervals - - -. At that point, Charlie Brown came by with a lawnmower.

In the last panel Snoopy, now covered with grass clippings, thinks: 'On the other hand, I have to put up with things my ancestors never dreamed of.'

All things considered, I'd rather live now, than in the upper paleolithic. (A look at how I see dangerous new technologies - like agriculture - in "The Dream" Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (June 28, 2009).)

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