People as Data. Imagine having your body wired 24/7/365 to collect data on what you eat, how you move, when you go to the bathroom,… when (or IF) you get laid…, and that data is used to tweak your body and mind through organic or cybernetic means. Orwell revisited? Google’s or Apple’s business plan?
Financial Times’ April Dembosky reports on a growing group of bio-hackers, or “self-quantifiers,” who are doing just that, and they even have a website where other would-be bio-hackers can find more info (Quantified Self) and meat - er, meet - each other. They held a conference in late May in California to explore the possibilities and discuss the effects of self-quantification not only on each other, but on society as a whole (link for more info).
“We like to hack hardware and software, why not hack our bodies?” says Tim Chang.
Past is prolog. The idea of self-quantification isn’t new, as a paragraph on Benjamin Franklin shows how he kept track of 13 virtues that he would check off when violated. This would help him keep his moral bearing straight. Modern self-quantifiers see themselves doing something similar, only with modern implantable equipment like pacemakers and insulin pumps. And the medical community is also taking notice. Modern medicine has always had a “magic bullet” or “one size fits all” mentality for treating ailments. With the data gathered by willing self-quantifying patients, doctors can better tailor treatments for those cases where the standard issue treatments can cause adverse side effects… like killing the patient. That could save lots on insurance and lawsuits.
Already these self-quantifiers are comparing themselves to a group of 1970s era computer geeks: Early-adopters and hobbyists with visions of everyone in every household quantifying themselves to tweak their meat for optimum performance. One possible system described is the Sprout:
The self-tracking equivalent of an early model, 30lb, four-part desktop computer is Fujitsu Laboratories’ Sprout, as worn by software engineer Alex Gilman at the Quantified Self Conference: a maze of sensors and wires send data from his ear, chest and arm to the pocket-sized computer clipped to his belt – the Sprout. The Sprout synchronizes the physical data from the body sensors and from the apps on his iPod Touch where he records his moods and drowsiness levels. What is now a mess of raw, useless data can be calculated and translated into a neat graph that will eventually be used to measure stress and fatigue, manage weight loss, even predict illness.
The potential of the Sprout is intriguing, but mass appeal will only come when such devices are consolidated into small, wireless, all-in-one products that make data collection completely passive, says Chang. Most will require little to no human effort and some will even be “game-ified”, he says, made as fun and addictive as Angry Birds.
“… and right here is where I farted.”
Speaking of games, I can already see athletes at ALL levels wanting to use self-quantification and bio-hacking. They probably already do, with a poke of ster… I mean “vitamins.” But using this system is not considered cheating… yet.
The Bigger Question: Do you REALLY want to be tracked and quantified? Self-quantification may sound pretty cool, until you need to find a place to put all your biometrics. Not only do you need large enough space, but that space needs to be secure from unauthorized access:
The implications for privacy are dramatic. Advocates and politicians were in an uproar when they realised the kind of access that Apple and Google have to geographic data derived from phones. Imagining three years worth of heart rate data or depression symptoms travelling through mobile devices – potentially being offered for sale to drug or insurance companies, exploited by advertisers or hacked by cyber criminals – puts watchdog groups on alert.
“What consumers need to realise is there’s a huge, huge demand for information about their activities, and the protections for the information about their activities are far, far, far less than what they think,” says Lee Tien, a privacy attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “A lot of these cloud services fall outside the federal and state privacy regimes.”
To put it another way, do you want to hear from Lulzsec that you are genetically predisposed to being gay or homicidal?
Most, if not all, self-quantifiers do it of their own free will, in the name of self-improvement. To many outsiders, they can’t get over the feeling of orwellianism mixed with a bit of narcissism. Even former self-quantifiers admit to taking the quest to perfection to the extreme:
“People thought I was narcissistic. What they didn’t see was the self-punishment, the fear, the hatred behind the tracking,” writes Alexandra Carmichael, one of the founders of CureTogether.com, in a poem about why she stopped tracking herself. “I had stopped trusting myself. Letting the numbers drown out my intuition, my instincts.”
Despite the perils, the self-quantifiers are willing to continue the tracking and tweaking in hopes of making humans a better species. Will they become Friedrich Nietzsche’s ubermensch, or just a bunch of skin-eating mutants roaming the streets? Nobody has come up with an app for that, and that leads to the most important question:
DARPA seeks new methods for analysis and decoding of neural signals in order to understand how neural-based sensory stimulation could be applied to accelerate recovery from brain injury. Ultimately, it is desired to develop models of neural codes and temporal patterns that can provide an ability to interpret and predict changes in neural organization through plasticity at multiple scales of measurement.
A document is available there (MS-Word/XML format) for those who need some military-procurement-related reading material.
Look into the light. The idea behind the REPAIR project is to use chips in areas where physical damage has occurred. The chips will act as replacements for damaged areas and use light pulses to transmit signals:
But what experts can’t yet do, (Krishna) Shenoy said, is alter those electrical pulses to turn brain circuits on or off. His team will use optogenetics, an emerging technique that involves emitting light pulses to precisely trigger neural activity, to develop an implanted TBI treatment device.
“Before this, emitting light into the brain would be like hitting it with a hammer,” Shenoy said. “What we’re doing now is pin-pointing a single neuron, and that neuron will naturally change its activity depending on the cue.”
The implants developed by the project will likely be composed of electrodes or optical fibers, and will sit on the surface of the brain. They’ll read electrical signals from neurons, and deliver appropriate light pulses to stimulate other brain regions in response. The implants would allow the brain to operate normally, by acting as substitutes for areas that were damaged or “unavailable.”
But why stop at “replacing” when you can “upgrade?” How about a math co-processor? Maybe an nVidia GPU for your vision? Do you multitasking types want a multi-core CPU for more multitasking?
No word yet on if stem cells are being studied to rebuild those same damaged areas.
Beyond beta-tests. Shenoy is looking to have animals with implants in four years. After that…
And while Darpa’s interested in ailing vets, the implants could have broad civilian application, …
A demonstration from Philips Electronics showing the possibilities of implanted LED “tattoos.” Pretty kinky, but there are already practical applications being considered.
The Illustrated Man. Tattoos have mostly been static graphics, limited in their usefulness in communication certain info. But researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have now come up with LED tattoos that can turn your skin into a living screen. And to help get this tech inside you, the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana have found a way to use silk to implant the circuits.
A silky entry. Why silk to implant electronics? From Technology Review:
By building thin, flexible silicon electronics on silk substrates, researchers have made electronics that almost completely dissolve inside the body. So far the research group has demonstrated arrays of transistors made on thin films of silk. While electronics must usually be encased to protect them from the body, these electronics don’t need protection, and the silk means the electronics conform to biological tissue. The silk melts away over time and the thin silicon circuits left behind don’t cause irritation because they are just nanometers thick.
Silk has been used before and is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for medical use. So far, all that’s left is to nano-size the electronics and make the connections better. Once that happens, then what?
Tramp stamp one second, instructions the next.
It’s written all over your face… and the back of your wrist. Currently the technology is limited to monochrome displays, but even so, they can be just as useful. Blood-sugar readings are just a start. From H+:
Professor Litt’s laboratory is a collaboration between Neurology, Neurosurgery, Neuroscience, and Engineering. While epilepsy is the lab’s core focus, other research includes implantable neurodevices, functional neurosurgery, network and computational neuroscience, movement disorders, intra-operative and ICU monitoring, major mental illness, and other brain network disorders.
Ultimately, they can be interfacing with the brain to allow the implantee to control the tattoos.
The future isn’t black and white. Making the millions-of-colors tattoos may still be ways off, but that isn’t stopping Wired from speculating about future uses:
GPS, with a map readout on the back of the wrist would certainly be useful, as would chips that cover your eyeballs and can darken down when the sun is shining too bright.
And a full-body display will eventually be used for advertising. Combine this with bioluminescent ink, for example, and you could turn yourself into a small, walking version of Times Square. At least, unlike a real tattoo, you can switch this one off.
I’m thinking about simply changing skin color to start, like going from Albino white to dark chocolate African, or maybe steel gray… or alien green.
Brain-Computer Interfaces are just in its infancy, but security experts are worried that hackers may be able to pull off the ultimate “mindfuck.”
Mind control. Using everyday objects requires using your brain, mostly to control your arms and legs to manipulate them. Lately though, there have been some major breakthroughs in interfacing directly to your head, including a thought-controlled wheelchair and mind-reading machines, which have stirred up some controversy of its own. William Gibson’s vision of a computer that you can “jack” into your head is ever so closer.
And that has some security people concerned…
“Neural devices are innovating at an extremely rapid rate and hold tremendous promise for the future,” said computer security expert Tadayoshi Kohno of the University of Washington. “But if we don’t start paying attention to security, we’re worried that we might find ourselves in five or 10 years saying we’ve made a big mistake.”
Hackers tap into personal computers all the time — but what would happen if they focused their nefarious energy on neural devices, such as the deep-brain stimulators currently used to treat Parkinson’s and depression, or electrode systems for controlling prosthetic limbs? According to Kohno and his colleagues, who published their concerns July 1 in Neurosurgical Focus, most current devices carry few security risks. But as neural engineering becomes more complex and more widespread, the potential for security breaches will mushroom.
Can’t happen… can it? It would seem that trying to upload malware into your cortex would be difficult at best, if you consider that most BCI are read-only (that is, they can only read your brainwaves). Then again, if the “sex chip” proves viable, that connection will become read-write which can be “influenced,” and not by outside hackers alone:
In some cases, patients might even want to hack into their own neural device. Unlike devices to control prosthetic limbs, which still use wires, many deep brain stimulators already rely on wireless signals. Hacking into these devices could enable patients to “self-prescribe” elevated moods or pain relief by increasing the activity of the brain’s reward centers.
They’re already hacking brains. If the attacks on Epilepsy support sites are any indication, brain hacking is already occurring if not directly. Having a hacker hijack your brainstem is not possible just yet, but on the day when neural interfaces and neuron reprogramming come together, you can bet that meatbots will abound and we will be facing a real zombie apocalypse…
Here comes (!) the ORGASMATRON! Oxford University researchers have announced that they are currently developing a chip that will be implantable in the brain and can stimulate certain areas like the orbitofrontal cortex, which has been shown to produce sensations of pleasure from eating… and SEX.
Guess which pleasure sensation they’re aiming for…
(Neurosurgery professor Tipu Aziz, said) … current technology, which requires surgery to connect a wire from a heart pacemaker into the brain, can cause bleeding and is “intrusive and crude”.
He continued: “When the technology is improved, we can use deep brain stimulation in many new areas. It will be more subtle, with more control over the power so you may be able to turn the chip on and off when needed.
Sex is just one possible use of the chip. They’re looking at other possible brain-stimulation therapies within ten years.
Meanwhile, in a secret lab in North Carolina, USA… Another “orgasmatron” has been developed for women (click the pic above to read the full article on io9):
Women who have used the device say they feel as if their clitoris and vagina are actually being stimulated, to quite realistic effect. (”One woman asked me, ‘Would it be considered adultery if I gave the remote control to someone other than my husband?’ ” Meloy says.)
Some volunteers also report fleeting episodes of clenched foot muscles, Meloy says, probably a result of electrical pulses leaving the spine and stimulating nearby motor nerves. (He wonders if the phenomenon might somehow be related to a common orgasm description: “My toes curled.”)
And when the device’s pulse intensity is cranked up to maximum, Meloy says, some women find their vaginal and rectal muscles squeezing rhythmically in time with the pulses, even before the orgasmic finale.
Before I judge my neighbor, let me walk a mile in his moccasins. - Sioux proverb.
In what has to be major proof of science fiction becoming science reality, neuroscientists at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet have shown that a person’s ‘conscious’ can be moved between bodies by using virtual reality headgear. The people reported feeling like they were in the new body as if it was their own. The full report can be read and downloaded from the Public Library of Science One (PLoS One).
“The present findings could have groundbreaking industrial and clinical applications” write neuroscientists Valeria I. Petkova and H. Henrik Ehrsson of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. “Experiencing ‘becoming’ a humanoid robot in tele-robotics and feeling ownership of simulated bodies in virtual reality applications would probably enhance user control, realism, and the feeling of ‘presence.’”
Freaky Friday… Any day of the week. While tele-robotics may be the most immediate application of the body-swap phenomenon, it’s possible to apply this to some more fun uses:
Imagine surfing the nets Tron-like, or engaging in online deathmatches or quests using tele-presence: Would you alter your tactics if you felt like you could actually die online? How would Deus Ex or System Shock feel playing inside the games? Would you feel the G-forces of a flight or driving simulation?
Of course, cyberspace would only be the beginning. How does a meatbot sound to you? A Remote controlled human fresh from the clone vats and piloted by tele-presence to do your bidding. Or maybe a “backup” clone of yourself that you can send into dangerous areas to throw would-be assassins and religious trash off. Or maybe “masquerading” as Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush (to undo the harm they’ve done), or as Ron Jeremy or Sarah Palin or… Your meatbot doesn’t even need to be the same sex as you!
In conclusion, these experiments have demonstrated how remarkably easy it is to ‘move’ a human centre of awareness from one body to another. This speaks directly to the classical question of the relationship between human consciousness and the body, which has been discussed by philosophers, psychologists, and theologians for centuries. The continuous integration of multisensory and motor signals in ego-centric reference frames thus maintains the co-alignment between the experienced self and the physical body.
The University of Reading’s robot and its “brain”; Cultured neurons in a multi-electrode array (MEA) with electrodes for communication between the neurons and the robot body.
In what has to be a ground-breaking event, the University of Reading’s (UK) Cybernetic Intelligence Research Group (CIRG) have constructed a robot that has an organic “brain” made of cultured neurons. Control of the robot is done completly from the brain, WITHOUT HUMAN INPUT.
The project is, surprisingly, not about creating a race of cyborgs:
This cutting edge research is the first step to examine how memories manifest themselves in the brain, and how a brain stores specific pieces of data. The key aim is that eventually this will lead to a better understanding of development and of diseases and disorders which affect the brain such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, stoke and brain injury.
So, no robot/cyborg overlords. Not just yet… The main goal of the brain-bot is to study how the brain works in terms of memory storage. Of course, that doesn’t mean other applications are not possible:
(From Roland Piquepaille, ZDNet) The area of focus is notably the use of electrode technology, where a connection is made directly with the cerebral cortex and/or nervous system. The presentation will consider the future in which robots have biological, or part-biological, brains and in which neural implants link the human nervous system bi-directionally with technology and the internet.
There’s also this video (a 95MB video) about the bot and a couple of its creators (I’ll be checking it out when I have some time).
UPDATE: It looks like the video link above has “expired,” so here’s a video from New Scientist showing the bot in action: