Emergency! Your brain has been hacked …
Your brain has been hacked – Background
The title of this article could well be an alert received directly on your brain implant connected through the internet or a virtual private network (VPN) to a cloud solution that promises innumerable functionalities, all of them very convenient and innovative. We are probably talking about the end of this decade, although it is difficult to forecast, since the speed and acceleration of change is dizzying.
But no, it is not a real event – at least not yet.
The first discoveries about electrical activity in the brain and the beginning of electroencephalography (EEG) date back to the previous century, in the early 1920s. Hans Berger (1873-1941), a German psychiatrist, discovered Alpha waves (8-13 Hz frequency) by analyzing EEGs.
Later, in the 1970s, a professor at UCLA University, Jacques Vidal, coined the term Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI, in English form). Jacques was conducting research under a grant from the National Science Foundation and supported by subsequent contracts with DARPA.
The concept of the neuroprosthesis appears, referring to artificial devices which replace or improve the functioning of impaired nervous systems. As of 2006, there are more than 100,000 people in the United States with hearing system implants (Cochlear implants).
In 2002, Kevin Warwick applied 100 electrodes to his nervous system, connecting it to the Internet, investigating the possibilities for improvement, and successfully conducting a series of experiments. Later, and with electrodes also implanted in the nervous system of his wife, they carried out the first experiment of direct electronic communication between the nervous systems of two humans.
In 2004, Thomas DeMarse of the University of Florida used a culture of 25,000 neurons, taken from the brain of a rat, to fly an F-22 fighter jet simulator. The cells were arranged on a 60-electrode grid and used to control the pitch and yaw functions of the simulator. The study focused on understanding how the human brain performs and learns computational tasks at the cellular level.
In 2009, Emotiv launched the EPOC, a 14-channel EEG device that can read 4 states of mind, 13 states of consciousness, facial expressions, and head movements. The EPOC is the first commercial BCI to use dry sensor technology, which can be moistened with a saline solution for a better connection.
In 2016, a group of hobbyists developed an open source BCI board that sends neural signals to the audio jack of a smartphone, reducing the cost of the basic BCI to $30. Basic diagnostic software is available for Android devices as well as a text input application for Unity.
A consortium of 12 European partners has completed a roadmap (The future in Brain / Neural-Computer Interaction – Horizon 2020) to support the European Commission in its funding decisions for the new Horizon 2020 framework program.
We have recently seen the latest experiment by Neuralink Corporation, a nanotechnology company founded by Elon Musk in 2016. Neuralink, has presented a device, surgically implanted into a pig. This device, through a wireless connection, captured the brain activity of the animal.
As of August 2020, Neuralink’s 1024-electrode read / write link device, v 0.9, has been approved as anFDA breakthrough device that allows for use in limited human trials per FDA guidelines for testing devices.
As we can see, there are multiple initiatives with various purposes and public-private financing.
Let’s move on to analyzing the potential of these technologies in more detail, as well as the serious implications they have, or could have, on life as we know it.
Implants, applications and potential implications
BCI implants can have multiple applications or use cases, including:
- Replace functions lost due to illness or injury, such as communication or control of a wheelchair. Potential patients who could benefit from this technology would be patients with: ALS, cerebral palsy, brain stem stroke, spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophies or chronic peripheral neuropathies.
- Restore lost functions, such as stimulation of muscles in a paralyzed person and stimulation of nerves to restore function of the bladder.
- Improve functions, such as the rehabilitation of cerebrovascular accidents, detection of stress levels or attention deficit.
- BCIs are a powerful research tool for studying brain functions for medical or other purposes.
- Consensual telepathy / silent communication
- Improved communication and interpersonal understanding, enriching it with additional elements to words. For this, signals associated with body language, facial expressions and other contextual elements would be incorporated into communication, eliminating language barriers.
- Simultaneous translation, eliminating the barrier of the different languages existing in the world.
- Speak directly with computers and robots, being able to go beyond simple communication, connecting the concepts and thought structures of the user with the computer, search engines and other applications.
- Advertising: Neural signals would be used in the advertising domain to measure and understand consumer responses to different products.
Modification of processes and brain states:
- Using Neuro-feedback to adjust your own brain to achieve a more desirable state.
- Education and training processes, for example, teaching a novice to have brain processing similar to that of an expert professional.
- Enhance the brain’s capabilities using artificial intelligence
- Human-machine collaboration to improve decision-making processes
- Monitor the soldier’s cognitive workload
- Person-to-person communication
- Systems control
- Drone control
- Advanced combat equipment, manned and unmanned
- Performance and training improvement and monitoring
- Enhance the brain’s capabilities using artificial intelligence
With some of the possibilities of this technology covered, let’s move on to addressing the significant challenges.
It is a very complex issue that arouses great interest and concern in broad sectors of society. In this article we intend to address these risks from a strictly objective and technical point of view, leaving aside ideological or subjective factors, religious or even moral ones. In our analysis, these risks are:
- Potential side effects on health, both short and long term
- Potential risks to user safety
- Serious cyber security risks with a potentially serious impact on privacy
- Irreversibility of changes in the brain
- Potential misuse, especially in certain applications
- Problems with assumption of responsibility and accountability
- Personality changes caused by deep brain stimulation
- Blurring of the division between humans and machines and inability to distinguish between human and machine-controlled actions
- Use of technology in advanced interrogation techniques by government authorities
- Selective improvement and social stratification
- Monitoring and “labeling system”
- Mind control of devices that can allow people to interact and control their environment
- Movement control
- Control of emotions
This list of problems is not comprehensive and only seeks to help understand, at a high level, the great challenge we face.
How will we guarantee cybersecurity?
We will not be able to fully assure their cyber security. There is no such thing as a total guarantee of cyber security. As with everything, for each application of these technologies, an exhaustive risk analysis will have to be carried out. Basically, we will have to answer the question of what we gain in exchange for exposing ourselves to this universe of problems.
In some extreme cases, it will be justified given the severity of the problems to be solved (mainly clinical applications).
Regulators face a great challenge in this technology and the imperative obligation to protect citizens from the immense pressure that large power groups will exert to get the green light to “connect” citizens as if they were IoT devices.
In countries with democratic government structures, the risks, although high, are less than in countries with dictatorial regimes, in which decisions could be imposed, opening the possibility of exercising direct control (mental processes, emotional stadiums, movement and even behavior) over citizens.
As I have said before, it is a matter of special complexity that requires the highest levels of consciousness on the part of the global population to take an active role in the decisions to be taken.
Some existing projects and communities
The technologies discussed in this article are being analyzed globally. There are innumerable initiatives – public, private, mixed – and high levels of investment. We will go on to list some of them:
Mindmaze provides neuroscience solutions to help people with debilitating brain injuries. It also seeks to expand these findings beyond healthcare, offering to push the boundaries of what it means to be human.
Neuralink is an American neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk and others that develops implantable brain-machine interfaces (BMI). Neuralink seeks to create a “digital layer over the cortex”. The long-term goal is to achieve “symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”
Neurosky introduces a new generation of portable and mobile devices for the consumer. Its advanced biosensors, biometric algorithms, reference designs, and Big Data analytics enable cutting-edge innovation in mHealth products and services to measure mind and body performance.
Emotiv offers a complete neurotechnology ecosystem powered by EEG Brainwear. Scientifically validated ultraportable, intuitive software suite, secure cloud computing and machine learning.
Florida Research Instruments is a biomedical research and development company focused on design and consulting in the behavioral pharmaceutical area.
OpenViBE is a software platform that allows you to design, test and use Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI). OpenViBE can also be used as a generic real-time EEG acquisition, processing and display system.
BNCI Horizon 2020 is a Coordination and Support Action (CSA) funded within the Framework Program of the European Commission 7. Therefore, this project does not cover research, but rather seeks to foster collaboration and communication between stakeholders in the field of brain-computer interfaces (including research groups, companies, end users, policy makers and the general public).
OpenBCI stands for Open Source Brain-Computer Interface (BCI). OpenBCI provides anyone with a computer with the tools to sample the electrical activity of their body. Its versatile biosensor systems can be used to sample brain electrical activity (EEG), muscle activity (EMG), heart rate (ECG), body movement, and much more. 3D printable EEG helmets can be used to obtain research grade EEG records.
Cyborg Foundation is an online platform for research, development and promotion of projects related to the creation of new senses and perceptions by applying technology to the human body.
Cloudbrain is an open source platform for data analysis of wearable devices.
NeuroTechX is a non-profit organization whose mission is to facilitate the advancement of neurotechnology by providing key resources and learning opportunities, and by being leaders in local and worldwide technological initiatives. Their three pillars are “Community”, “Education”, and “Professional Development”.
NeuroRehabLab is an interdisciplinary research group of the University of Madeira that investigates at the intersection of technology, neuroscience and clinical practice to find novel solutions to increase the quality of life of those with special needs. The group capitalizes on Virtual Reality, Serious Games, and Brain-Computer Interfaces to exploit specific brain mechanisms that relate to functional recovery to approach motor and cognitive rehabilitation by means of non-invasive and low-cost technologies.
Brain-computer interface, Wikipedia
Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) and Neuroprosthetics, Patrick Carberry, University of Rhode Island
The future in brain/neural-computer interaction – Horizon 2020
Clinical Applications of Brain-Computer Interfaces: Current State and Future Prospects, National Center for Biotechnology Information
Brain-Computer Interface Technologies in the Coming Decades, Translational Neuroscience Branch, Army Research Laboratory, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, USA.