Hacking Your Mind

Posted: May 4, 2012 in Insanity, Tek
Tags: , , , , ,

In 1981 William Gibson wrote his seminal short story, “Johnny Mnemonic” which was later included in his book “Burning Chrome” and adapted to the big screen in 1995 featuring none other than Keanu Reeves of The Matrix in an unsurprisingly similar role. Gibson has since been crowned the father of CyberPunk; a postmodern genre of science fiction characterized by “high tech and low life” social extremes. One of the things that made Gibson’s work so amazing was his ability to think into the seemingly not so distant and possible future of technology and geopolitical fallout with a somewhat idealistic and slightly dark perspective.

Gibson had no idea we would soon delve into a World Wide Web of digital and virtual life interconnecting each of us through information technology advances and simple, sublime but powerful tools and massively revolutionary ideas like Facebook, Twitter and the iPhone. In his story Johnny Mnemonic, the main character, stores secret information on a hard drive implanted in his brain in order to smuggle the data from one place to another as a courier because the information itself was too sensitive to be transmitted over the “Net”; Gibson’s forward thinking, virtual reality equivalent of what we now see as the Internet and an inspiration for the aforementioned, Wachowski brothers, The Matrix.

The idea that, in the real world, you could interface a human brain with a computer has often been the outer reach of science fiction writers and Gibson’s work was once the pinnacle of that idea. The evolution of that idea inspired the Wachowski brothers to create what Gibson himself said “[The matrix] is arguably the ultimate cyberpunk artifact”, as they expanded upon Gibson’s idea of not only interfacing technology with the brain but extending it to the mind by culminating their epic trilogy with the main character Neo achieving mind-over-computer abilities in his “real world”.

Even a decade ago it all seemed so very science fiction and fantasy. A decade from now, it may be more common than we ever thought possible.

Over the past few years, some advances in technology have been made that are no less than amazing as universities all over the world have tackled the “Brain Computer Interface” challenges. The results have been rapid, revolutionary, thought provoking and even in some cases a bit scary.

Scientists at the Honda Research Institute announced in 2009 that they had created a helmet to control their robot, Asimo, using EEG (electroencephalogram) technology. Though this technology wasn’t ready for commercial application at the time and had it’s problems, finding solutions to those problems was only a matter of time.

In 2011 a company called NeuroSky began selling a device to the general public$100 that uses EEG technology allowing users to control software and hardware with nothing but their mind. NeuroSky’s vision is one that is truly revolutionary thinking as they say, “We will see a day in the near future where heart attacks will be mitigated, seizures avoided, machines operated, movies edited, games controlled, REM prolonged, bullseyes scored, and lessons learned using only the power of biosensors”. So far, they’ve already started putting their ideas to work in some increasingly creative ways and one example is Necomimi, their personally controlled cat ears.

So maybe thought controlled robotic cat ears aren’t exactly the next revolutionary step in telepathic computer operation. Neurosky however, isn’t the only company making leaps and bounds in human computer interfaces using the mind. In April of 2012, professor Jose Millan of the Federal Polytechnic School in Lausanne, Switzerland demonstrated the ability to enable a paraplegic man to control a robot 60 kilometers away using EEG technology. His goals are to develop wheel chair controls, electric skin sensors for amputees with cybernetic limbs, and spinal chord implants that would allow paraplegics to walk again; possibly starting clinical trials within the next year.

With technology like this developing not only in research but in the commercial world, one has to recognize the similarity between it’s evolution and the evolution of the MP3 music format and the entrance they made to the commercial market prior to the resulting and indefinably revolutionary iPod by Apple. Technology is exploding at an astounding rate. In less than a decade, the wave of new advances in communication with smart phones and now tablets as well as social networking has changed the very landscape of not only our lives but of our politics. Through the expansion of the Internet into the Twitterverse and beyond, we see a wealth of new ideas exploding into culture best described as the memeverse where meme’s are “units of cultural information”. No one can deny the seemingly accurate and ubiquitous “There’s an app for that” which propelled Apple’s iPhone to unprecedented popularity and success, making Apple one of the largest companies in the world.

While we allow our inner child to bask in the amazement and fantasy of mind controlled robots and computers you control by thinking, actually being reality rather than fiction, there is a slightly darker side to this story that our giddy enthusiasm might tend, as a society, to overlook. We live in troubled times, both economically and politically. While our society attempts to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of technology, so does our government and many of those in government up until a few years ago didn’t understand the difference between email and text messaging let alone Twitter, Facebook or human brain computer interfaces. We can’t exactly call our elected officials Internet savvy; or can we?

In 2012 on the heals of the NDAA, which many claim is a power grab by the Executive Branch to empower the President with the ability to indefinitely detain enemies of the state without trial or their constitutionally protected right of due process, Congress presented the American people, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) which failed due to it’s obvious overreach and unpopularity followed by none other than the mother of all Orwellian cyber spy plans, CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act). CISPA proposes the sharing of Internet traffic and other digital information between the government and technology and manufacturing companies under the auspice of enabling the government to investigate cyber threats and ensure against both internal and external cyber attacks. While CISPA is threatened with a Presidential veto over the failure of the bill to adequately protect civil liberties and safeguard constitutionally protected rights, it is clearly the first round in what will likely be a long and heated debate over our real world virtual reality.

Much of the debate over CISPA focuses on aspects of people’s use of the Internet through technologies like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Facebook and even iPhone Apps. The U.S. Government is now building a $2 Billion facility that covers a mind boggling 1 million square feet with four 25,000 sq. ft. server farms as part of the “Utah Data Center” for the National Security Agency as reported by Wired Magazine. Even Orwell wasn’t this Orwellian. The simple fact that the government is trying to build a facility designed to store more information than we have a mathematical name to describe should be disturbing to say the least.

Now consider that it is practically a foregone conclusion that the EEG technology enabling computers to read your mind and thus enabling us to subsequently manipulate computers and machines is going to advance at a rapid pace. It will get smaller, faster and cheaper. It will likely even be as common as your “smart phone”, after all, what’s smarter than a phone that you can talk to? A phone that knows what you are thinking.

If you’re web enabled phone knows what you are thinking however, so will the government if the NSA has anything to say about it. Because to them, that’s just information on the Internet. It begs the question of whether or not George Orwell made the same mistake in his opus “1984” that William Gibson made in regards to underestimating the evolution of fiction to reality. After all, in his distopian world controlled by an all-powerful oligarchy, even the infamous Ministry of Truth didn’t have the ability to read your mind but the NSA in the not so far foreseeable future very well could.

Who knows, maybe Tin Foil Hats might come into fashion after all.

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