Late last year, the editors of a leading public policy magazine, Foreign Policy, asked eight prominent intellectuals to identify the single idea currently posing the greatest threat to humanity. Most of the suggestions were old demons: various economic myths, the idea that you can fight "a war on evil," Americaphobia and so on. Only Francis Fukuyama, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, came up with a new candidate: transhumanism.
Transhumanism might be described as the technology of advanced individual enhancement. While it includes physical modifications (diamondoid teeth, self-styling hair, autocleaning ears, nanotube bones, lipid metabolizers, polymer muscles), most of the interest in the technology focuses on the integration of brains and computers - especially brains and networks. Sample transhumanist apps could include cell phone implants (which would allow virtual telepathy), memory backups and augmenters, thought recorders, reflex accelerators, collaborative consciousness (whiteboarding in the brain), and a very long list of thought-controlled actuators. Ultimately, the technology could extend to the uploading and downloading of entire minds in and out of host bodies, providing a self-consciousness that, theoretically, would have no definitive nor necessary end. That is, immortality, of a sort.
While some of these abilities are clearly quite far off, others are already attracting researchers (see "Making the Head Case," below), and none are known (at the moment at least) to be impossible. Fukuyama obviously felt the technology is close enough at hand to write a book on it, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, the thrust of which is that society should give the idea a miss. His main concern was that transhumanism would place an impossible burden on the idea of equal rights, since it would multiply the number of ways of being human well past our powers of tolerance. (If we have all this trouble with skin colour, just wait until some people have wings, augmented memory and reflex accelerators.)
Ignorance Is No OptionStill, it's not clear that boycotting neurotech will be a realistic option. When the people around you - competitors, colleagues, partners - can run Google searches in their brains during conversations; or read documents upside down on a desk 30 feet away; or remember exactly who said what, when and where; or coordinate meeting tactics telepathically; or work forever without sleep; or control every device on a production line with thought alone, your only probable alternative is to join them or retire. No corporation could ignore the competitive potential of a neurotech-enhanced workforce for long.
Right now, the only people thinking about transhumanism are futurists, ethicists (such as Fukuyama) and researchers. However, if and when we do advance into this technology, several management issues will also need attention. For instance, upgrade management.
From a purely capitalist point of view, one virtue of transhumanism is that it incorporates both body and mind into the continuous upgrade cycle that characterizes contemporary consumption patterns. Once a given modification - such as a cortical display - is successfully invented, newer and better ones will crop up on the market every year, boasting lower power requirements, higher resolution, hyperspectral sensitivity, longer mean time between failures, richer recording, sharing and backup features, and so on. Multiply by all the devices embraced by the transhumanist agenda, and it's clear that every year even the most financially secure users will be forced to winnow a small number of choices from an enormous range of possibilities.
Another concern could be digital rights management.
When brains can interact with hard disks, remembering will become the equivalent of copying. Presumably, intellectual property producers will react with the usual mix of policies, some generous, some not. Some producers will want you to pay every time you remember something; others will allow you to keep content in consciousness for as long as you like but levy an extra charge for moving it into long-term memory; still others will want to erase their content entirely as rights expire, essentially inducing a contractually limited form of amnesia. While any one of these illustrations might be wrong in detail, there will almost certainly be a whole range of intellectual property issues and complications that will need to be managed.
In other words, it looks as though the transhumanist era is going to present a host of problems for which there are no immediate solutions. Consider, for example, the extremely vexing problem of neurosecurity.
A brain running on a network will obviously be an extremely attractive target for everyone from outright criminals to bored hackers to spammers. Why worry about actually earning a promotion when you can just write a worm that will configure your superior's brain so that the very thought of you triggers his or her pleasure centres? Why bother with phishing when you can direct your victims to transfer their assets straight to your bank account? Why tolerate the presence of infidels when they can be converted to the one true faith with the push of a button?
Whom Do You Trust? Not YouPeter Cassidy, secretary general of the Anti-Phishing Working Group, is one of the few analysts thinking about neurosecurity. He says that a key problem is that the brain appears to consider itself a trusted environment. When brain region A gets a file request from region B, it typically hands over the data automatically, without asking for ID or imposing more than the most minimal plausibility check. It is true that with age and experience our brains do gradually build up a short blacklist of forbidden instructions, often involving particular commands originating from the hypothalamus or adrenal glands (for example, "bet the house on red," or "pick a fight with that bunch of sailors"), but in general, learning is slow and the results patchy. Such laxity will be inadequate in an age when brainjacking has become a perfectly plausible form of sabotage.
Cassidy points out that one of the core problems in neurosecurity is defining trusted agents. All security depends on the concept of two trusted parties (a trusted identity and a computer) and a trust applicant. The neurosecurity conundrum is that it mixes all these identities in the same brain. It forces you to face the questions of when, whether and how to trust yourself. Still, CSOs and CIOs are familiar with the essence of even this issue, which is much like analyzing the problem of defending an enterprise against an internal employee who has gone bad.
One possible approach to neurosecurity might be to implant a public key infrastructure in our brains so that every neural region can sign and authenticate requests and replies from any other region. A second might be maintaining a master list of approved mental activities and blocking any mental operations not on that list. (Concerns about whether the list itself was corrupted might be addressed by refreshing the list constantly from implanted and presumably unhackable ROM chips.) It might also be necessary to outsource significant fractions of our neural processing to highly secure computing sites. In theory, such measures might improve on the neurosecurity system imposed on us by evolution, making us less vulnerable to catchy tunes and empty political slogans.
New Security HorizonsLance James, CSO of Secure Science, a security services company, is working on a book on the security aspects of neuronetworking. He observes that engineering research on this topic is going to be harder than conventional security research, which of course has not completely cleared its own agenda. Conventional networking allows researchers to launch experimental attacks on simulated networks that are indistinguishable from the real thing. Simulated minds are nowhere on the horizon, which means that neurosecurity engineers are going to have to work on real brains. This is likely to be awkward, as volunteers will be few. And the fact that neurotech will almost certainly be wireless (The Matrix notwithstanding, people are not going to walk around with open brain sockets) will just add to the security headaches.
However, James continues, the news is not all bad. A large fraction of today's computer network security problems can be attributed to the uniformity of our hardware and software. Hackers do their damage by learning how to exploit these "monocultures." If every user built and programmed his computer himself, security would be dramatically easier. Brains are not only self-programming but self-organizing, which almost certainly means that every adult brain is radically different from every other. In the terms of the trade, James says, "Brains might share the same kernel, though even that is a guess, but they probably run different services and have different programming calls." This diversity might be a problem for neurotech vendors hoping for the economies of mass production, but it gives CIOs and CSOs lots of room to breathe.
Second, all these problems are not going to be dropped in our lap at once. The first neurocomputational products will probably be thought-controlled actuators. Though such devices might show up in quite a range of environments - embracing apps from wheelchairs to body extenders to computer games to controlling industrial machinery - they can be made relatively safe by keeping the data traffic one-way, pushing control signals out through the electrodes while shunting feedback through the physical senses, which are relatively secure. The machinery itself might have a network connection (and therefore be subject to attack), but not the brains of its operators.
Security issues will become more pressing when the second generation of neurotech products arrive: cortical implants allowing sensors and data stores to "print" directly to consciousness. (Much of the research under way today on such implants can be characterized as figuring out how to write a consciousness driver - such as a driver for a printer or a graphic card - only for awareness.)
Fortunately, the first generation of these devices will probably be electronic eyes for the blind, a function that does not require Internet connectivity. From there, however, it is just a step (conceptually, at least - the engineering itself is another question) to a device that accepts any feed at all, from infrared cameras to television programming. Once at that point, the demand for some sort of connectivity will become intense. Who wouldn't want to be able to read their e-mail (or watch The Sopranos) while pretending to listen to a boring presentation?
CISOs have been urging users to take security seriously for decades, to not use "PASSWORD" for their passwords, to be careful where they find their wireless access points and to use firewalls. By and large, they have enjoyed mixed results. Perhaps the advent of neuronetworking will encourage people finally to take these cautionary procedures seriously.
But probably not.
Making the Head CaseThere are three roads to neurotech.
The first is smart interfaces. When artificial intelligence researchers finally solve the general learning problem, it will be possible to build machines that learn to give humans what they want even before they know they want it. This route is the least invasive but is not without its own security issues; a good illustration of these was made forcefully by the classic science fiction movie Forbidden Planet, in which this very technology leaves its inventors fatally vulnerable to attack from "monsters from the id."
The second is building neurocomputers and neuronetworks out of biological elements. While we think of biology as a chemical medium, in fact, it offers a long list of electrical and electronic properties that can be adapted to integrate with other technologies. These bioelectronic materials can then be surgically implanted or "grown" through genetic engineering.
The third is using nanotechnology to upgrade native biology with better materials and designs, such as using nanotubes to make faster and smaller neurons, or enabling the body to communicate with itself via a wireless LAN, thus dispensing with axons.
All these roads are being investigated today and there are no obvious showstoppers on any of them. While the primary incentive for this work is advancing the treatment of conditions such as paraplegia and blindness, neurotech is also central to progress in basic brain research. You can only learn so much about how the brain works by listening from outside.