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Computerized brains are here: Great for medicine but haven for neuro-criminals

Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology is here, bringing us intimately closer to machines and opening the door for neuro crimes

Researchers are hoping to use the systems to help people with brain and spinal cord injuries to overcome paralysis Hackers could gather enough data to mimic the neural activity needed to log into work or personal accounts Musk's Neuralink tries to “upgrade” humans to be able to interact with computing devices at the speed of thought

Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology is here, thanks to Elon Musk’s Neuralink project, but also numerous scientists and researchers around the world, trying to bring tech intimately closer to mankind aiming for healthy and rewarding outcomes.

Only, man is always tempted to misuse, steal, or circumvent in order to cheat the world or find a loophole to gain access to data and funds.

And if this means hacking your brain, then so be it.    

BCI: How does it work? 

Being connected to a computer through a brain-computer interface is something that could change how we view the world and our own bodies. 

BCI involves putting electrodes onto the surface of the brain to pick up the electrical signals that pass through the tissue.  

Brains help us pick up a new skill, like writing or driving. The difference between having a tool in your hand and having a BCI is that the latter goes directly to the neurons that are helping you interact with the world. Justin Sanchez, a tech fellow at the Battelle Memorial Institute says: “So the potential for those neurons to be directly adapted for the brain-computer interface is that much higher [than with other tools]”. 

Research published last year found that even the use of a non-invasive BCI (where brain signals are read by sensors worn on, rather than in, the head) for a short time can induce a learning activity. 

That plasticity is particularly pertinent for BCIs, as researchers are hoping to use the systems to help people with brain and spinal cord injuries to overcome paralysis of their limbs or a lost sense of touch in parts of their body. 

A stroke acts like a major traffic jam: Nothing can get in or out. BCIs help those who’ve had strokes to find alternative routes around such blockages. 

Read: Brain waves are the new data: Very useful at controlling computers, but can also be hacked

Hacking our brains

Recent findings have shown that BCIs are potentially vulnerable to cyber criminality. This opens the prospect of ‘‘neuro crimes’’: extending the range of computer-crime to neural devices.

Having the ability to read the thoughts or memories of a political leader, researcher, or business executive, could be huge.

There are already some signs that security will be a key consideration for BCIs. Researchers have already shown that BCIs could be used to get people to disclose information from their PIN numbers to their religious convictions

Malware could hamper acquiring data from the brain, as well as sending signals from the device back to the cortex, either by altering or exfiltrating the data. 

Attackers could either intercept the data being gathered from the headset and replace it with their own or intercept the data being used to stimulate the user’s brain and replace it with an alternative. Hackers could gather enough data to mimic the neural activity needed to log into work or personal accounts. 

Other attacks hinge on the introduction or removal of data from BCIs: introducing noise to diminish the signal-to-noise ratio, for example, and making the signal being received from the brain difficult or impossible to read.

Neuralink

Last August, Musk showed an actual product demo of a Neuralink device in action, a version 2 of the robot that Neuralink revealed last year during a similar update.  

Musk’s invention is not the ultimate vision of an interface designed for general consumer users that he hopes to someday achieve. But expectations are still high, given that last year the company had embarked on animal testing and was talking about potentially entering human testing within the next 12 months.

Neuralink is the company he founded in 2016 to develop computer-brain interfaces for the explicit purpose of help mitigating the effects of neurological disorders in patients with severe impacts to mobility and other daily functioning.

But ultimately, the company also hopes to use its technology to essentially “upgrade” humans to be able to interact with computing devices at the speed of thought.

Musk believes that a tighter, more high-fidelity bond between people and computers can help decrease the threat that advanced AI surpasses the capabilities of human intelligence.  

Read: Neuralink 101: Elon Musk shows off his machine-brain interface with live-animal demonstration

BCI in action today 

At UC San Francisco Weill Institute for Neurosciences, researchers working towards a brain-controlled prosthetic limb have shown that machine learning techniques helped an individual with paralysis learn to control a computer cursor using their brain activity without requiring extensive daily retraining, which has been a requirement of all past brain-computer interface (BCI) efforts.

Researchers at the University of Helsinki have developed a technique in which a computer models visual perception by monitoring human brain signals.  The technique is based on a novel brain-computer interface. Previously, similar brain-computer interfaces have been able to perform one-way communication from brain to computer, such as spell individual letters or move a cursor.

The RAND Corporation researchers examined current and future developments in the world of BCI and evaluated the practical applications and potential risks of various technologies. Their study is part of RAND’s Security 2040 initiative, which explores new technologies and trends that are shaping the future of global security.

Timothy Marler, a senior research engineer at RAND and co-author of the report, says that it makes sense to study BCI through a military lens.   With the power of BCI tools, the U.S. military could potentially enhance the physical and cognitive power of its personnel.

Research into BCIs that could be used for warfare, is looking at where soldiers could control tanks or drones with their minds alone.  

Advanced BCI technology could be used to reduce pain (for military personnel injured in combat) or even regulate emotions of soldiers to reduce a sense of fear, or deal with PTSD when they return home.