Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI)

This subject has caught many people’s attention, especially since Elon Musk created Neuralink and started talking about it. As we unpack this topic, it is crucial that we also look at the cybersecurity implications. 

We have approximately 86 billion neurons in our brains, and each neuron consists of dendrites, somas, and axons. The dendrite processes information coming in, and the soma joins the signals from the dendrites and passes them on. The axon is the output from the neuron. These neurons are all connected via synapses. The connection made between individual neurons (one-to-one and many-to-many) is responsible for our cognitive processes, learning, and memory. When you do some studying into artificial neural networks, you will become familiar with how the strengthening, breaking, or weakening of the links between the neurons is responsible for our learning. When neurons fire, they send messages, and the strength between the links is either enhanced or weakened by what you are learning. This is a very loose explanation of how learning happens.  

 

Synapses firing

Brain-computer interfaces are primitive technology now, and it is not invasive. Current technology sits outside of the skull from where electrical impulses are read. When the neurons talk to each other via the synapses, electrical impulses are moving back and forth. The technology used to read those impulses and patterns of activity is called electroencephalogram or EEG. The EEG gives insight into what is happening in the brain in any given situation. As part of the experiment, participants may be asked to do a task or think about a particular subject. Activities are monitored, and we get an idea of the processes taking place during thinking and concentration.  

There is talk of implanting chips into the skull, but that is a conversation for another day. 

Have we developed some form of application to manipulate the data? 

Yes, but it is in the early stages. We can measure what happens, and we can use those measurements to control external devices. Experiments have been performed on gamers where they wear headsets connected to their brains, and they have some form of control over what they do by using their thoughts. The results have been a bit shaky, but it has come to show that you can control an environment through robotics or a computer interface by thinking.  

Mind control sounds like such a far-fetched concept – it doesnt seem to be real 

It feels like it is science fiction, but it is really happening! Much of what is in testing is the development of the intellectual property. For that reason, we are not privy to all of the experiments taking place. Institutions are not divulging information because they want to stay ahead of the curve, particularly from a commercial perspective.  

There are studies in progress where participants are presented with pictures before they go to sleep. Researchers look at how the brain responds to looking at these pictures. Then they store the responses as data. As participants go to sleep, they are monitored for the same patterns. When participants showcase similar patterns during REM, the conclusion is that they dream about that picture seen before falling asleep. In fact, even thinking about that image would fire neurons in the same specific pattern. How amazing is that? You can read someone’s dreams. While we do not always remember our dreams, we would still know what we dreamt about as long as we have comparable data.  

 

Brain waves during sleep

Another example: we often speak to ourselves, the internal dialogue they call it. If we can record brain patterns via EEG when specific words are spoken or images formed in the mind, then store them in a database, we may be able to read minds. With AI’s help, we may find a generic algorithm that will help identify and isolate thoughts. And regardless of who we apply that technology too, we would be able to read those thoughts. There are practical experiments ongoing, showing results this may be coming soon. 

Will BCIs be able to control emotions? What are the ethical considerations? 

Does the thought trigger the emotion, or does the emotion trigger the thought? This is an age-old debate. Most people argue that it is a combination of the two. Let us consider a technology that could change the way you think by reading and stimulating your emotions. As an experiment, it has already been done, so this is not a far-fetched idea. They used a rat and taught it how to get food. The information was distilled, stored, and fed into another rat’s brain. That rat did not have to go through the learning phase to know how to get the food. 

Development of policies and rules 

Will we be able to educate our children by forcing information directly into their brains? How crazy to think that we could extract information from our own brains and feed it to students or our children. The ethical implications will be boundless. And if you consider the experiment with the rats, should we be worried about the government reading our thoughts without us knowing – a terrifying thought. 

It is already scary that people can see into our social media and online activities as Google and Facebook tracks so much. There could be some positive benefits in catching someone before they commit a crime. But how will authorities differentiate between a premeditated plan or crime and an imagined fantasy? We are certainly moving in the direction of movies like The Matrix and Inception here.  

We do not have the answers yet. But if we can create patterns from thinking, the next step would be to connect them to a computer interface. Your brain could then be directly connected to the Internet. Then you can create hallucinations within people by pushing data into the brain to affect visualisation. We can make a ‘trip’ without VR equipment or LSD. And since your brain is connected to the Internet, we can store memories or share memories online with other people.  

All of this may sound ludicrous. But there is a lot of related experimentation going on as we speak. And if we consider the strides already taken, bringing this to fruition is only a few decades away.  

Cybersecurity What-Ifs... 

What if cybersecurity-hacks were applied here? If thoughts can be intercepted and maliciously changed, then the sender could be accused of false things. 

Imagine ransomware in the human mind. Someone could take your expertise and lock it away. The same applies to memories. You could hold memories’ hostage’ until someone pays up or performs an action. You could lock someone out of their own life. With brainwashing and indoctrination, it is probably happening already. But it will undoubtedly make the job of brainwashing effortless when perpetrators have direct access to the core and just dump the information into the brain.  

What if you could outsource the processing power of your brain to someone else? Or pay someone else to do calculations for you. Giving you ‘rainman’esque’ capabilities or savant skills. And what about identity theft – you would be able to extract everyone’s thoughts. You would be able to shut someone’s vital organs down. What if… 

There are some utterly terrifying prospects. It may sound like it is out of this world, but these are the types of discussions we should start having now, rather than wait until it is too late. 

This is an area in which Samurai will be doing a lot of work in the future. Since these ideas are still in the concept phase, it is the right time to have these conversations. 

The blog is transcribed and summarised from the podcast, hence the lack of grammar, syntax and semantic formality.

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