In the 1995 anime sci-fi classic, Ghost in the Shell, a futuristic world was envisioned in which cybernetic individuals routinely operate in the virtual world as easily as in the real one. Transhuman cybernetic minds are inextricably connected to the cyber-realm, leaving them vulnerable to attacks.
In this projected future people are subjected to 'ghost hacking' in which their minds are taken over by computer hackers without their knowing it. Their 'ghost' or essence, or soul, or self, or whatever descriptor you want to give for self-identity, is manipulated and controlled from a remote source.
As disturbing as this sounds, it's not beyond the realm of plausibility. When considering the Church-Turing thesis of computational compatability, and given recent insight into cognitive computationalism (or functionalism), one can make the assumption that future human minds will be indelibly linked to extraneous computer systems.
And as a frightening precursor to 'ghost hacking', also known as neurohacking, a recent article in Technology Review reveals that the first generation of invasive neurohacking may be only years away.
In her article, titled "Could Terrorists Hijack Your Brain?" Emily Singer reports on how security experts are warning that we need to prepare for a much broader spectrum of potential bioterror agents -- this according to a report released this week by the Washington, DC-based National Academies.
While most bioweapons research is focused on the usual suspects, namely such agents as anthrax and smallpox, it is now thought that emerging technologies in biotechnology and the life sciences could be usurped to take control of genes, immune systems, and even brains.
Terrorists, or even state-actors for that matter, could also co-opt relatively new technologies, such as synthetic biology (which aims to build organisms that can detect or produce chemicals or perform other functions) or RNA interference (a technique that allows scientists to easily control gene expression).
There is also concern about the potential of bioregulators -- small, biologically active organic compounds that can regulate different systems in the body. Newer technologies such as targeted delivery methods that zero in on the immune or neuroendocrine systems could make it easier to use bioregulators in evil ways.
Such is the double-edged sword of technological development. For each advancement, someone can twist it for self-serving and nefarious purposes. Consequently, in order to prepare for the ever-changing "threat spectrum," the advisors recommend that technologies with dual-use potential -- those that can be used to either help or harm humanity -- be continually reassessed to take account of rapid advances in biotechnology.
Additionally, it is suggested that a scientific advisory board be developed to assist the national security community and to ensure that teams monitoring these threats have the most up-to-date scientific expertise. It was also advised that public health infrastructures be strengthened and that incentives be put into place for the creation of broadly active vaccines and other products that can protect against diverse agents.
"It's like the transition from trench warfare to mobilized warfare between World War I and World War II," notes one of the report authors. "How do we begin to defend ourselves against that dynamic threat landscape? How do we adapt our health, medical, and biodefense systems to respond to that?"
Interestingly, the advisors also endorsed an open exchange of information in the life sciences as much as possible, emphasizing that the best means of protecting against future threats is further advances in technology.
So, are we indelibly headed for a Ghost in the Shell like future? Quite possibly yes, but it appears that we may have the safeguards, firewalls, and prophylaxis in place to deal with the problems as they arise.
As a final aside, humans have had to deal with 'neurohacking' for quite some time now, but not in such invasive ways. Ever since propaganda was developed, people have had their minds influenced by external sources. And memes themselves, whether they be autonomous or created and directed by individuals or groups, are impacting on their hosts, directing the human sense of self and how decisions are formulated.
It looks, however, that keeping control of our minds is about to get harder by an order of magnitude.
This article was orginally published on February 1, 2006.