The ongoing revelations of the many ways the NSA has been snooping into billions of cellphones and emails has roiled nations.As the technology that we use becomes more intimate in our lives and our very biology, the ability to abuse that interaction grows.
This fear that there are some dark and nameless forces that know our secrets and can control our destiny is not new, however. Since Biblical times, the notion of falling sway to some sinister entity has always been a fundamental fear. It’s why the idea of getting our bodies taken over by the devil (i.e. The Exorcist) has really really scared the crap out of man for millennia.
Returning to the here and now, we see numerous examples of technology being used to control some living creature. For Christmas, you could have been the first to get a RoboRoach. For about a hundred dollars, you could have purchased a cockroach with implanted electronics that allows you to control its movements with an iPhone. For over ten years, researchers have driven mice through mazes, up trees, and through rubble with small brain implants. Most of them involved electrodes placed in the pleasure centers of the brain (the nucleus accumbens) to reward the animal when they would make the preferred choice.
More recently, scientists at MIT have shown they can even implant false memories to influence a mouse’s behavior. While scientifically interesting, and maybe a little creepy, we always tell ourselves that level of manipulation, that level of control is not possible in humans. We’re different, more complex.
Certainly nobody will be forcibly implanting electronics into our brain a la RoboRoach-style any time soon. But what about the electronics in us now and the one’s we could receive in the future – could they be hacked, or altered for malign purposes?
Deep brain stimulators for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease are old hat these days. Over a hundred thousand have been implanted thus far. Interestingly, while they have a profound impact on the patient’s ability to move, their ongoing usage has shown a somewhat unexpected side effect. They become risk-takers. Rarely, these patients can become pathological gamblers or develop hyper-sexual behavior. Stimulating our movement control centers (known as the subthalamic nucleus) also alters certain reward circuits that lead to inappropriate pleasure seeking in approximately five percent of patients.
But what if someone had access to the stimulator? What if someone changed the voltages and electrode parameters sothat rather than optimally treating the movement problems they enhanced the person’s desire to take a risk?
For a Bernie Madoff type, that may be just the thing if he is recruiting senior citizens to invest in his Ponzi scheme. Essentially, tomorrow's new slight of hand could be software alterations to someone’s implant to make old school chicanery more desirable, more pleasurable.
Beyond the use of pleasure to influence a given decision (right or left for the rat and a dubious investment for the retiree), as the complexity of the implants in our nervous system increase so too does the potential hazard. Currently,the first humans with severe motor disabilities are starting to use brain computer interfaces.Complex mathematical algorithms are enabling the systems to decipher the patient’s thoughts and enable them to control various robotic devices with their minds.
In primate models, experiments are underway to not only pull information out, but also put it in - namely, create artificial sights, smells, and touches that are the result of the right electric currents to the right spots in the brain. The ability to tap into the mind has exited speculative science and is entering clinical application. But just as breast augmentation transited from patients with breast cancer to the Real House Wives of Beverly Hills, neuroprosthetic technologies will transition from restoration to augmentation. They’ll become a perk more than a therapy.
Imagine after a procedure less risky than getting your ear pierced, that the user could then communicate with other people’s minds, share thoughts, have virtual experiences of any type, as if they are really happening, and download knowledge.
With that type of upside, people would overwhelmingly be interested. My novel RedDevil 4 imagines a plausible time when these type of brain implants are as ubiquitous as smart phones.
Now enter the hacker. If some entity can accesses a technology that can decode an individual’s inner thoughts and create artificial perceptions,the possibilities for trouble become protean. Making a person think a road is clear during busy traffic, stealing secrets, inserting false memories, manipulating a politician’s decisions – the upside to the technology suddenly comes with a terrifying downside.
People will never take the private sanctum between their ears for granted again. Perhaps one day we’ll look back at the NSA’s violations as quaint.
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