Wednesday, March 3, 2010

RSA 2010: Merging Mind & Machine - Hacking the Neural Net

The Rosetta Stone Photo Credit: Hans Hillewaert CC-SA-BY-3.0 (Theme of RSA 2010)

We are developing encyclopedia of the brain, neuron by neuron ... Dr. John P. Donoghue, Brown University

RSA 2010: Merging Mind & Machine - Hacking the Neural Net

By Richard Power

On Monday, at the I.S.S.A. CISO Executive Forum, I delivered the current iteration of my Executive Intelligence Briefing. I update it quarterly, and have delivered it in forty countries, over the last 15 years. The 2009-2010 theme is "Starting Over After A Lost Decade: In Search of A Bold New Vision of Security." The CISO Executive Forum presentation was the fifth time I have delivered this version.

In the current iteration, I continue to track the evolution of the five areas of concern that I started with: i.e., E-Commerce Crime, Information Age Espionage, Infrastructure Attacks, Personal Cyber Insecurity. But, in addition, I articulate five new areas of concern: IT supply chain insecurity, virtualization and the Cloud, Corporate Governance, Climate Change, Sustainability and Cyber Security, and Being and Consciousness in Cyberspace.

The last of these, "Being and Consciousness in Cyberspace" is an exploration of some philosophical issues from what "the Wisdom of Insecurity" and the theory of the "Biocentric Universe" can offer us in terms of perspective, to the existential implications and security consequences of the merging of human and cyber, a radical transformation which is happening at a far more accelerated pace than most of us realize.

At the ISSA CISO Executive Forum, as elsewhere, the responses registered in attendees range from bewilderment to a deep grokking.

So I smiled when I saw that at the last keynote session, at the end of the day on the second day of the RSA, featured Dr. John P. Donoghue, Director of Brown Institute for Brain Science, Brown University and his work on "connecting the internet to the brain," i.e., "hacking the neural net."

Why would we want a sensing neural interface system? Well, the principle answer (at this point in time) is to transform the lives of people paralyzed by disease or injury.

Five paralyzed people were implanted with BrainGate in a pilot project.

In his powerful presentation, Dr. Donoghue answered these questions:

Can motor intention activate neurons after long-standing paralysis? Yes.

What area of the brain? "Primary Motor Cortex/Arm."

What signals are there to read? "FP and Spikes."

How are these signals decoded? "Neural patterns in the Spikes become control signals."

Donoghue showed how researchers could listen to one brain cell of a patient, as the patient imagined opening a hand (active) and then closing a hand (silent).

What technologies are involved (and evolved) in this research?

Donoghue showed a video of a paralysis patient using the brain to move a computer cursor to open e-mail, & then draw a circle. He also showed a video of a paralysis patient controlling robotic "assistants."

The Brown Institute team is working on a version of BrainGate with wireless, fully implanted sensors.

Such neural output, it is projected, will be used not only to assist paralysis patients, but to replace the limbs, and even to restore movement in limbs.

Referencing TV Sci-Fi, Donoghue illustrated how BrainGate was now somewhere between technology imaged in Star Trek and technology imagined in Star Wars.

"Neurotechnology," Donoghue remarked, "is already here." He cited some examples: electronic stimulation used to "turn off" Parkinson's Disease, as well as bionic ears to restore hearing, and bionic eye to transmit some imagery to the brain.

BTW, I was inspired when Donoghue showed a slide juxtaposing an image of the human brain and with a mapping image of the internet, because my briefing starts with a slide juxtaposing images of the earth from space with a mapping image of the internet. Yes, I will soon be juxtaposing all three images in the next iteration of my briefing.

Now, we are getting somewhere ...

After Donoghue's dazzling presentation, he sat with Ari Juels of RSA Laboratories to answer some compelling questions.

Here is just a brief excerpt:

Ari Juels: BrainGate restores lost capabilities to patients who are suffering from a dysfunction, but as you have shown it is possible to control more than just artificial limbs, you showed, for instance, the ability to control a cursor. Can you envision a day when healthy patients have implants of this sort, to supplement their functionality in the world, implants that help people stick to their diets, or control devices for a third arm, or something along those lines?

Dr. John Donoghue: There are many people who think about these things, and who want to be able to extend their capabilities. This is a medical device. We are trying to develop something for individuals who have disabilities, to make their lives better. The biggest barrier is that this does require brain surgery. We don't take that lightly. It is something that always raises a concern. Where we go with this, and how we use it will require serious debate and discussion. But, as I said, I think the barrier will always be the surgical one. We will not in any cavalier way, implant able-bodied people to have frivolous functions. On the other hand, we have many things already available to us that are aids, we have smart phones that we carry around with us that are substitutes for our memories, we have many, many devices; so it would have to be clear that at some point we would outstrip all of the available external technology before we begin to think about enhancing ourselves by implanting something in the brain.

Juels: Have you in fact been approached by industries, or companies, or government agencies that are hoping to exploit BrainGate for purposes other than the strictly medical ones?

Donoghue: I would say "exploit." I mentioned this EEG-like signal that is available from outside your head. There are a lot of people interested in how much control can you get from that. It is, in fact, a very noisy and hard to manage signal. And it is not very reliable. There are a lot of people who are interested in seeing that signal be as good as the one that you can from inside your head ... One place where there is a lot of interest is in the toy industry ...

Well, I am going to leave it there.

There are profound implications for security and privacy.

First, the network perimeter vanished, as the internet popped up inside the enterprise, and vice-versa; and now, both the network and the internet are vanishing into the Cloud. What's next? Will Being and Consciousness vanish into the Cloud, or will the Cloud vanish into Being and Consciousness? The answer to that either/or question is, of course, a very Zen "Yes."

Stay tuned ...