Neuralink Just Made Black Mirror a Reality
What Can Be the Security Implications of Possibly the Most Privacy-Invasive Technology Ever?
When the first season of the British dystopian Sci-fi series Black Mirror first aired in 2011, needless to say, it pretty much shook the audience, and that too not in a good way. The show explored a modern, hi-tech version of the society, blended with some of the darkest human instincts.
However, to the relief of the viewers, most of the things showed in the television series seemed too futuristic to be true. Well, not anymore. Now that the first few prototypes and animal trials of Elon Musk’s brain-interface machine (BMI) company Neuralink are already making headlines, the dystopian that we saw in Black Mirror.
Neuralink, backed by some of the sharpest minds in the fields of engineering and neuroscience, is going through an active research and development stage right now, trying to improve on the design of their BMI devices.
According to the proposed timelines and plans, as announced by Neuralink co-founder Elon Musk, the company is in constant touch with the FDA regarding the approval to initiate a human trial phase.
In fact, in the recent event where Musk demonstrated a working Neuralink device inside a pig’s brain, Musk revealed that Neuralink had achieved an FDA Breakthrough Device designation in July. This unique program of the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) allows some relaxation over certain regulatory processes for products “that provide for more effective treatment or diagnosis of life-threatening or irreversibly debilitating diseases or conditions”.
What this means for Neuralink is that to get the approval for a human trial (once they have shown satisfactory results in the animal trials, obviously), the company might be able to bypass some of the stringent safety checks.
This might sound like a piece of extremely good news for people with physical disabilities or those suffering from motor neuron diseases (MNDs) like paraplegia, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s in the sense that they might get the means to have their cognitive or sensory-motor functions restored much faster.
But if you followed through the recent Neuralink event, this might also scare you, a lot. We have not one, but an entire list of reasons for you why Neuralink, the “overly ambitious” technology could become an actual Black Mirror episode.
NueroHacking: The Neo-Terrorism
The first and foremost concern regarding the Neuralink has a lot to do with how the BMI devices work. Firstly, if you don’t know what BMI’s are you can read about them (and of course, more about Neuralink here).
In layman’s terms, a BMI can be thought of as a link between the neurons in the brain and an external device (such as a computer, smartphone, etc.).
The architectural design of Neuralink comprises fine, thread-like electrodes inserted inside the neurons of the brain to capture and send electrical impulses, accompanied by a Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) module that allows the device to communicate with, say, an external smartphone.
Now, the concern here is that like all networked devices and technologies, Bluetooth is prone to eavesdropping. This means that while the Neuralink implant inside your brain is receiving or sending some form of data, this crucial data could be intercepted.
Yes, we can’t outright discard the security features and encryption technology that a device like Neuralink would come with, however, this is a genuine concern that just can’t be ignored.
Neuralink co-founder Elon Musk’s company Tesla Motors is in a constant war with hackers over the security breaches in its electrical vehicles (EV). While penetrating the security of an Electric Vehicle can’t be that damaging, a device implanted into your head, that allows bi-directional communication between your brain and your smartphone can be devastating. Snooping on your brain activities is probably the least damaging thing that someone can do in such a case.
Data Storage Concerns with Neuralink
During the QnA section of the Neuralink event held on August 28, 2020, Elon Musk was asked a rather controversial question posed by a Twitter user – “Can Neuralink be used to store and playback the memories?”.
Musk hinted that probably in the future, this could be possible.
Now, data breaches are almost a daily news nowadays, with an abundance of personal data, account credentials, and other sensitive user information openly available on unindexed online platforms, commonly known as the Dark Web. In such a case, having your online memories stored on an online database and getting news of a data breach is the last thing you would want!
And while some people might put forth the argument that this storage of memories is still only a concept and not a reality (which is, in fact, a valid argument), the data stored on Neuralink servers will be more than just “memories” of the user.
As of now, we don’t have much info regarding what data will be stored on the servers, or, whether the data will be stored locally on the user’s smartphone, but we can expect, at the bare minimum, the user’s neural activity to be logged. That by itself can be susceptible information. In the age of Machine Learning and Data Science, even what appears to be unstructured data can be used to extract several key insights.
Thus, unless Neuralink comes up with a practically un-hackable data encryption technology to protect its users’ data, the storage of neural data of the user is a major privacy concern.
To What Extent is the Bluetooth Radiation Safe?
As we saw earlier, the Neuralink implant embedded in your skull will link to your smartphone over Bluetooth LE. Now, radiation and human bodies don’t go along well. Scientists and researchers all over the world have accepted that long term exposure to radiation can have detrimental effects on the body.
While Neuralink uses Bluetooth LE, which is comparatively much safer as compared to mobile phone radiation, but still, having a device directly embedded inside your skull that will be radiating short-range emissions at all times has not been researched upon much.
We are not sure about what the short-term and long-term effects of this will be on the brain of the individual’s post-implant.
Our Body’s Immune System Hates Foreign Objects
Our body’s immuno-response is designed in a way that it is supposed to fight any foreign material or object that was not originally meant to be in the body. Not going too deep into human biology, I’ll come straight to the point.
Neuralink isn’t the first BMI device that is going to be installed into a human body. There have been experiments earlier as well, both in humans as well in animals. And some of those experiments recorded very adverse effects on the brain of the test subject.
Some patients or volunteers in the experiments suffered seizers as a side effect of electrodes being installed inside their heads. To Neuralink’s defense, the electrodes used in these past experiments were very large as compared to the ones in the new generation Neuralink implants.
According to Neuralink, their electrodes are only a few microns thick, and will not affect the users’ natural brain activity in any way.
What we just saw were some of the possible ways that tell us how possibly the Neuralink technology can be a bit too invasive for us humans, both in terms of privacy as well as biologically.
But again, most of the things that we saw are just assumptions at this point. Neuralink is still at a very early developmental stage. The project is currently being led by some of the sharpest minds in the world, and there is no doubt that the team will try and address all these concerns.
Maybe the atmosphere of fear around this “technology of the future” is because Neuralink is going to be the biggest breakthrough in the field of neuroscience, enabling humans to interact directly with machines, giving rise to a generation of actual Cyborgs. This change is too big for some of us.
Are you excited for Neuralink? Would you trust a piece of technology that is installed directly into your brain, that you can use to control the other smart machines around you, or in some cases, vice versa?