Is your brain safe from attack?

I listen to a few podcasts, and one of my favorites is Stuff to Blow Your Mind. They recently did a great show on neurosecurity, and spent about a good portion of the show talking about the possibility of hacking prosthetics!

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At first glance, I thought they were going to talk about the neural hacking in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, where one of the characters figures out how to access the brain’s underlying ‘machine language’ and subvert your learned, cultural programming. Alas, the show is much more practical, speaking to present day issues, and a discussion of near-future aspects of what is sure to be a prevalent problem in our ever-wireless society.

While I was a little bummed that they didn’t talk about Snow Crash, I was thrilled to hear them talking about quite a few prosthetic devices I have a lot of experience with. They mentioned both the iLimb hand, and the Lynx knee-ankle system, both of which can connect via Bluetooth to your phone to make everyday adjustments.

And for the most part, they got it right. They do make the mistake of referring to the prostheses as “mind controlled” which isn’t quite right. What we have currently is prostheses that are controlled by reading the muscle signals in the remnant limbs.

The real potential for hacking is when the man/machine interface really achieves direct brain control. Then you’ve got something implanted in you that is directly reading your brain signals, and sending sensory data back to your brain as well. (A future post on feedback from your prosthesis!) Having that transceiver in your head opens up a whole world of worrying possibilities, from scanning your mind for data, to influencing you to act in certain ways.

Would you do it? Would you take a neural implant that augments your natural abilities, or returns the function of a lost or damaged limb? Is the risk worth the reward?

Control Strategy

In our upcoming Cold War series, the men and women of the Union Wolves overcome harrowing injuries with the help of some incredible prosthetic devices. Indeed, futuristic prostheses have long been a staple of sci-fi and pop culture.

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To give you and idea of how far we have to go, here’s an example of some of the fanciest tech we have available to us today:

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A little hard to see, but that’s a silicone socket embedded with a net of surface electrodes. While the mechanisms of prosthetic components have advanced steadily, it hasn’t been until recently that options for control strategies have really taken off.

The system pictured above reads the entirety of the limb’s muscle signals to allow the user to control the prosthesis. It’s as close as we can come right now to reading the nerve signals in a publicly available system. Combining pattern recognition with machine learning allows this system to make the use of the prosthesis as intuitive as possible.

It’s a long way from direct control, but it’s still a quantum leap over what we had to work with up until about five years ago. Recent developments have shown us that direct nerve control of a prosthesis is viable, and trials are beginning for artificial limbs that can also provide sensory feedback.

As nerve implants get smaller and smaller we come closer to powered exoskeletons (All You Need Is Kill, Starship Troopers), virtual and augmented reality (The Matrix, Inception, Avatar), and the seamless integration of man and machine (Ghost in the Shell.)