BSides LV In one of the most disturbing talks in all 10 years of Bsides Las Vegas, neuroscientists have warned that not only is hacking the brain possible right now, but it's also a lot easier than you may think.
Two boffins from Laboratory for Autonomy-Brain Exchange (LabX) have been working on brain/machine interfaces. The technology is a lot further developed than most people think and the pace of change is accelerating. It turns out the brain is surprisingly easy to hack – as two million Americans have already demonstrated.
"Over two million people have cochlear implants in the US at the moment," said Dr Ben Sawyer of LabX, based in the University of Central Florida. "They are now permanent connectors. Playing loud repetitive noises to prisoners is already used in interrogation, and that's available through these devices now."
Work on electrical brain stimulation began in the 1950s when surgeons at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center found that applying a small current to specific sector of the brain could induce laughter, smell, and even music in the mind of the subject. Cochlear implants work in a similar fashion, using electrical signals to simulate sound in the ears of those who have profound hearing loss.
Its potential was demonstrated in horrific fashion when boffins linked an electrical stimulus to the pleasure centre of a rat's brain, which the rodent could activate by pressing a pedal. In each case, the rats died because they would rather press the pedal than eat or drink, as you can see below.
But what we've seen in the last decade is a dramatic acceleration in the ways that the brain can be monitored and manipulated. This could vastly improve human lives, but the potential for abuse is high.
No longer science fiction
The two main monitoring points for the brain are its use of blood and electrical signals. Blood flows to parts of the brain that are working hard and the firing of electrical signals can be recorded and played back in some cases using modern machinery.
Dr Mark Canham, also from LabX, demonstrated one side of this during the presentation, wearing a rig that showed off his brain cycles during the presentation. It's now possible to take segments of that brain activity and either delete them, replicate them in others or reenact them, the speakers said.
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This was demonstrated in a paper published in April. Scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle hooked up three participants to electroencephalography (EEG) systems – two of them observing a game of Tetris. The EEG readings were transferred to the third participant via transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which stimulates electrical fields in the brain, to allow the third person to manipulate the blocks in the game and get feedback from the other two as to whether this was the correct decision.
The techniques to do this are non-invasive, meaning no wires in the brain. But research is already happening in this area and corporates are moving in. Elon Musk's latest venture, Neuralink, and even Facebook have decided to enter the brain/machine interface market.
Now, of course, Facebook could be trusted with this sort of thing, right? The Zuckerborg would never dream of manipulating its users' moods – apart from on the quiet. Indeed, the social media and gaming businesses have become adept at designing systems that boost dopamine levels in the brain when they are used.
You don't even need close contact over wires. It's already possible to take an electrocardiogram reading of the heart from some distance away, and brain scanning is advancing at a similar pace. It's already possible to divine a PIN by monitoring brain activity, which means reading crap passwords from your gray matter can't be far off.
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Brain/machine interfaces offer significant benefits, in terms of helping control the body, elicit faster reactions and, in some cases, increase memory capacity. But the dangers of brain hacking mean that society needs to come up with a set of ethical guidelines to make sure the technology doesn't get out of control.
"What do you do with technologies that people want, but aren't good for them?" Sawyer asked.
"This has happened before but, in this case, they've never come in such fast ways. We need to understand how people condition themselves. Rats get conditioned in a matter of minutes. Now our technology is extending out of reach." ®