Sooner or later, most human beings will be inseparable from the technology they use. Neural implants — small computers or devices that interface directly with neurons in the brain — aren’t a widespread reality yet, but the technology exists and the ground is laid for our brains to sync up with machines in the near future.
But where there are computers, there are computer hackers, and experts say the proliferation of neural implants and other symbiotic devices like pacemakers and cochlear implants opens up new risks for augmented humans.
On July 26, the Pew Research Center released a study on how Americans believe science and technology will affect human performance in the future. In short: Americans are terrified of biotechnology’s negative potential. Pew found more people were worried than enthusiastic about physical enhancements like gene editing, brain chip implants, and synthetic blood.
A 50-year-old woman in Phoenix went so far as to suggest that technology is making humans too much like robots.
“Are we becoming robots, is that what the whole society’s going to become?” She asked. “And then pretty soon someone will hack the computer system that you hook up to and throw a little virus in your brain and then what? You lose your identity as a person.”
Surprisingly, the woman from Arizona may have touched on the truth. We may not have full-on “headjacks” like Neo did in The Matrix in 1999, but some biotechnology advances are getting us close.
One of the most popular neural implants, the cochlear implant, allows hard of hearing and deaf people to hear.
“Cochlear implants have changed the world for deaf people,” Richard Tyler, Ph.D. professor of Otolaryngology at the University of Iowa, tells Inverse. “Without this technology, a lot of them could not hear at all.”
It’s transformed society, but it validates the Phoenix woman’s fears.
“Having said that,” Tyler continued, “These devices now connect to outside signals such as telephones and computers and can upload signals to send wave sounds and music directly to their implants.”
Phones, as the world is well aware of, can be hacked. Hypothetically, a phone connected to a cochlear implant could be hacked just as easily, and signals could then be sent to the implant directly by the hacker.
As more and more devices connect to a person’s phone through the Internet of Things, hacks become even easier. Connected devices on a shared network share vulnerabilities because they operate on the weakest man theory. Even if some of your devices are heavily protected, the weakest one connected to the network can give a dedicated hacker a way into the whole thing. And as connected devices expand from household appliances to cybernetic implants, the Internet of Things could become deadly.
“When you’re talking about lives being at stake, it changes the game,” Ted Harrington, a partner at Independent Security Evaluators and an organizer of DEF CON’s IoT Village, tells Inverse. “Issues of someone compromising a device in my home — it’s my social security number, or they can see my baby. It’s different if people say, now, it can kill me.”
A hack into a wirelessly connected cochlear implant won’t kill you, but hacking a pacemaker definitely could.
Today’s basic cochlear implants (ones without wireless connectivity) only communicate from one side of the skull to the other, and it’s “highly unlikely” that someone would be able to take advantage that connection, Tyler says.
Cochlear implants are just the start, though. In the future, doctors and scientists might be able to distribute behavior-altering light patterns or chemicals across the brain through neural implants, something the Pew commenter would find highly disturbing.
In July 2015, scientists from Washington University and the University of Illinois found that they could control a mouse’s movements through a remote-controlled implant on the mouse’s brain. The implant was only a tenth the size of a human hair, and could dose out drugs and pulses of light that made the mouse act and move in certain ways.
Studies on mice don’t always translate to humans, but they do provide a working theory of what is possible in mammalian brains.
One of the most obvious (and least high tech) issues that could arise is if someone with malicious intent physically gained control of a neural controller. But Harrington says wireless devices open up neural implants to remote hacks from afar.
If a head of state was using a neural implant for health or personal reasons, Russian hackers cracking into an email server would be the least of the country’s worries.
More and more responsibilities are moving to computers. It’s allowed for unprecedented achievements. It’s also allowed for unprecedented security risks, according to Stephen Wu and Marc Goodman. Wu is a partner at a Silicon Valley law firm, and Goodman is a founder of the Future Crimes Institute.
“Humans seem to have no limitations when it comes to finding ways to attack the computerized devices that others have invented,” Goodman and Wu wrote in “Neural Implants and Their Legal Implications,” published in the American Bar Association’s legal magazine.
While we’re probably still a handful of years away from this being an everyday danger, the future of neural hacking isn’t hard to imagine. Keiichi Matsuda’s “Hyper-Reality” video shows the dangers of a world guided by computers, where humans are inseparable from technology.
As technology advances, neural implants could change lives, enhance senses, and heal disabilities. But if they’re not properly secured, they could make memories, thoughts, and the things that make us human vulnerable to a few lines of code. While technological progress will probably benefit humanity in the long run, the 60+ percent of Americans who are worried about biotechnology might have a point. We don’t have to be Luddites, but we should have a realistic view of what could happen next.