The operating system for your brain

Last Friday I finished my summer internship at GrammaTech. A few days before that (I forget when exactly) the discussion on our IRC channel turned to cybernetic implants. We’re a company full of pretty hardcore software types, what do you expect? Though to be honest, I was the chief instigator. Anyways, the conversation quickly moved to the question of securing such implants. The questions raised are summarized by one coworker’s comment: “Which software vendor do you trust to write the operating system for your brain?” Given that regular implant technology probably isn’t too far in the future, the question is a valid one. For now my answer is: no one.

Let’s be honest: most of our computer systems are hopelessly insecure. And making them insecure isn’t as simple as installing antivirus software from a big vendor. Depending on just how secure you need or want to be, you potentially have to go very, very deep. In a lot of cases the trouble is not worth it. Want to take down my VPS running my personal website and storing my Git repos? Go ahead, it’ll take me all of five minutes to shut it down and spin it back up, maybe half an hour to restore everything. That’s far easier to do than statically analyzing every line of the Linux kernel, the GNU utilities and the web stack for vulnerabilities (and then fixing them without introducing new ones or breaking things). This is not to say that these aren’t worthwhile, important activities, they’re just not top priority for most users.

However, it’s another matter entirely when the systems are mission critical — banks, defense, the Internet backbone – or they’re running inside our body. Coming back to the original problem, medical technology is quickly progressing to the point of us having fully functional implants replacing faulty organs. Insulin pumps are just the start. Cochlear implants and artificial limbs have been around for a while. Bionic eyes are slowing pushing forward and real cyborgs exist. We’re not going to see full cyberbrains just yet and we’re definitely not throwing out the wetware for full synthetic bodies. But as the number of computers inside our bodies gradually increases it’s never too early to start thinking about how we’re going to keep them safe, especially if we want them connected to the Internet (and we will).

Having our implants connected to the Net is a matter of convenience as well as health and safety. Real-time monitoring, remote diagnostics and over-the-air software updates would greatly cut down on the amount of time you spend in your doctors’ waiting room. However, if you want your arm or eyes hooked up to the Internet you definitely want to be careful about who can connect to them. Asymmetric encryption and signing for all communications (especially updates) would be necessary, just for starters. I can see some kind of code-signing for the software itself being beneficial. But it raises of the question of whether the user can/should be able to hack their own organs. I really don’t want to jailbreak a critical organ if there is a possibility of bricking it. But at the same time I do have a right to my own bodyparts, biological or synthetic.

Aside: I wonder why cars don’t come with 3G connections for remote software upgrades. If the Kindle can do it, it can’t be that hard. Then again car manufacturers haven’t exactly been the most innovative and forward thinking in recent years. Maybe I should be talking to Elon Musk.

Even if the proper technical measures are in place, there is still the question of just who do we trust to provide and potentially control our body parts. I don’t mind Apple storing my music and Amazon can store and sync my books. I do mind them locking me in, which is why I’m still hesitant to go completely digital. But do I trust either of them (or any for-profit corporate entity) with my vital organs, or even non-vital ones? Furthermore do they get keys to shut down “malfunctioning” organs, for some definition of “malfunctioning”? What safeguards are in place to prevent them for misusing these keys? Given the life-threatening nature that such shutdowns might have, requiring a complex legal procedure to overturn shutdowns is dangerous and ethically negligent.

When implants start becoming mainstream and popular we’re going to start seeing issues and problems similar to the ones with computer systems. There are always going to be people who want differing degrees of control over their technology, whether that technology be cars, computers or prosthetics. It would be interesting to see something like a “homebrew” implant scene come up, though I doubt it would rival the popularity of the homebrew computer scene. Like many important problems the questions are both technical and social in nature. So, who do you trust to write the operating system for your brain?

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

4 thoughts on “The operating system for your brain”

  1. the medical devices industry has been incredibly backward and slow to allow regulators access to their code and systems. So while it seems really logical to us that you’d want people to have as much control over the code that runs on their own systems… it’s not foregone.

  2. I have a brain implant and everything I have ever owned for the last 29 years has been stolen. I dont know if I am putting on real clothes in the morning or walking around outside naked. I have woken up in artificial rooms and my children missing. Now I cannot even see my children if they were directly in-front of me. My memories can be zapped right out of my brain. I have spent thousands of dollars on a wedding ring and never saw the person again and took me a few years and a few bills to remember buying the rings. Only two people will admit I have a brain implant and they wont give me their names nor help me get it removed. I dont know what kind of chip or how to interact with it I have never made use of it myself although it has been hacked by dozens of people. I cannot go to work, near colleges or technical schools without my brain and body being remote controlled. I have been isolated from society I am staying at a homeless shelter because nobody on the city trusts my body. Total hell.

      1. Strange thing, I go to the hospital to get information on it and they refuse to help me so I leave and they call the police saying I escaped. And brain hack me right in through the front door and I wake up in the crazy-nut-ward it took me 3 weeks just to get my clothes back. After 3 weeks of taking their meds I got a 3 hour pass to see a dentist. When I wake the next morning at home my brain feels like its melting, I feel like I was cuddling with my toes all night, my tummy feels like its 6 feet tall and my back are my feet. My actual feet feal like my head and brain, and my head feals like where my feet are. The resolution of my vision is so low I cannot see curved edges like peoples shoulders this makes the upper half of my vision freeze like buggy microsoft programming. Trying to use a door, the handle feels square in my hand, and is further uncomfortable because I now have a fear of circles (stokenphobia) I’ve never heard of this before. Nightmares of burn holes in my brain. Numbers also confusing, size 9 shoe and my brain is wondering if this is the largest number, my IQ number, or the time of day. When trying to read Tuesday my voice would stop at the first syllabol pause then continue saying the day for me without my control.

        Two days of dreaming and it was of only clicks, drips, electric shocks, and feeling of brains on fire.

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