Hackable Humanity?: Vulnerabilities in a Transhuman Future


The rise and rise of tech, and the popularity of shows like Altered Carbon, is placing the idea of augmented humanity front-and-center. So-called “body hacking” is already popular enough to have its own annual convention, and well-respected AI pioneers like Siri inventor Tom Gruber have been evangelizing about technology that can, and will, be used to help humans achieve superhuman levels of cognitive function. Giving a TED Talk last year, Gruber asked: 

“What if you could have a memory that was as good as computer memory, and was about your life? What if you could remember every person you ever met, how to pronounce their name, their family details, their favorite sports, the last conversation you had with them? If you had this memory all your life, you could have the AI look at all the interactions you had with people over time and help you reflect on the long arc of your relationships. What if you could have the AI read everything you’ve ever read and listen to every song you’ve ever heard?”

It is an astonishing proposition. But even high priest Zuckerberg himself has suggested that BMIs (brain-machine interfaces) will enable communication at the speed of thought, and allow us to share the full sensory and emotional experience of our lives with friends and family. Folk like Peter Thiel and the indomitable Elon Musk agree on this general trajectory.

So what might have once sounded like the ramblings of a pot-smoking undergrad, is now a plausible set of questions that have not only been asked, but are rapidly being answered. In both mind and body. Indeed, from exosuits that improve physical strength, to contact lenses that grant us bionic eyes to take videos and photograph key moments of our lives, it appears that we should be less fearful of the arrival of superhuman robots, and more worried about becoming them.

Google’s Eccentric Futurist-In-Residence, Ray Kurzsweil, has predicted that by the 2030s our neocortex  – thinking part of our brain  – will be connected to the Cloud. Which prompts a question (amongst others!): just how vulnerable will this make us? To assume that security measures will keep pace with innovation is naïve when history shows us that they always play catch-up.

Until now, technology has functioned as an external interface between the human and the non-human. But in the world of the augmented human – far from editing us out of the script, as feared – the line between technology and humanity becomes so blurred that an attack on one could become indistinguishable from an attack on the other. In other words, technology and humanity would share vulnerabilities so closely that a hack or similar cyber espionage could physically affect us, or ruin our lives in other profound ways.

Remember last summer when the FDA discovered that St.Jude Medical pacemakers were hackable? Well imagine a world in which we all have “pacemakers”… Might a hostile government plant a genocidal logic bomb to detonate via an AI device popular in an enemy country? In theory, it could.

And though causing physical harm is a (quite terrible) thing that could happen, perhaps worse is the idea that this type of hijacking might also gain control of that part of ourselves we associate so intimately with personhood: our mind. Being able to obscure or manipulate someone’s memories, opinions, associations, and hopes would undoubtedly have the potential to inflict incredible harm.

Could rogue hackers eliminate evidence of a crime? Cause someone to forget relatives or important life events (a sort of forced-“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”)? Bring on depression? Maybe most threateningly, could a future “hackable humanity” allow despotic governments to surveil and enslave entire peoples?

If this were possible, it appears that humanity – if not physical bodies – could be edited out of the picture after all? Or at least in all meaningful ways. By this route, governments, hackers, commercial entities, etc. could skip the “middle man” that is our autonomous thought, and simply harness our mentally-embedded technologies. No longer would powerful actors have to labor in order to persuade or beguile us – instead they would have all-but direct control over our behaviors without needing our consent.

As is often the case, much of this reads like doomsday speculation, and we might reasonably hope that’s exactly what it is. Nonetheless, as ridiculous as the extension of these thoughts seem: i.e., mind control, it is still cavalier to ignore the fact that further immersing ourselves in technology, and even adopting it as part of our physical and mental beings, inevitably opens us up to additional, and novel, vulnerabilities. Let’s hope we can anticipate these in advance of a ubiquitously transhuman future.


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