The iBrain and the Emotiv: Hacking the Human Brain

September 28th, 2012

I gotta tell you, I’m a little freaked out right now. I’m afraid if we don’t get this police state thing figured out before technology marches too much forward we’re going to be living in a double-think pre-crime nightmare that even the best science fiction dystopias haven’t even come close to. Two inventions, the iBrain designed to diagnose sleep disorders and the Emotiv designed to play video games, are on the verge or translating brain waves directly into digital communication, or even allowing others to pluck thoughts right out your head.

iBrain is a headband invented by Dr Philip Low, CEO of NeuroVigil, that was designed to diagnose autism, sleep apnea, depression and other disorders by literally reading electrical signals in the patient’s brain while they’re asleep. Now Dr. Low is working with Professor Stephen Hawkings to see if the device can be used to read thoughts directly from his brain.

Hawkings is probably one of the most renowned physicists in the modern age, but he also suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and as the condition advances he becomes more and more paralyzed. Currently, his only means of communication with the outside world is through a highly sensitive infrared scanner that reads tiny twitches in his cheek muscles and translates them into words using complex computer programs. Dr. Low says, “We’d like to find a way to bypass his body, pretty much hack his brain.” In early tests the iBrain was able to translate Hawking’s thoughts into individual signals. Now it’s just a matter of patching together the language algorithms. Then neurotransmitters sitting against this cranium would allow them to convert brain waves into letters, words and eventually sentences. In time patients would be able to use the iBrain to send e-mails, turn lights off and on, and even have real time conversations.

Dr. Low says that the research also focuses on identifying signals that indicate intent. He says Hawkings, “can’t actually move his hand, but the motor cortex of the brain can still issue the command and generate the electrical waves in the brain.” So, how far are we from full blown prosthetic limbs that respond directly to the command signals in the brain that motivated the original limbs? And why stop with the body? If the brain can issue complex commands directly into a digital system why not integrate everything?

Here’s where it gets spooky… as if it’s not already spooky.

The Emotiv headset was created as an off-the-shelf brain-computer interface. It’s a wireless hands-free video game controller. It’s already freely available. It costs about $300 and since 2003 there have been 10,000 sold. This should already freak you out a little if you’re aware of how interchangeable video game software and military weapons targeting software is. If you can control a game avatar with your brain, aim and fire, you can control an unmanned military vehicle with your brain, and in time who knows? Drone swarms. Cyborg armies. It can already be used to control a toy helicopter. How is that any different from controlling the latest military hardware?

Here’s where it gets weirder. Researchers from the University of California, University of Oxford and University of Geneva are conducting research to see if they can use the eMotiv game controller to pluck subconscious information out of a person’s head… and it looks like they can. By picking up something called a P300 signal, so named because it occurs in the brain 300 milliseconds after a subconscious response to stimuli, they can find out your PIN number with 40% accuracy simply by showing you pictures of other people entering their PIN number at the bank.

Ivan Martinovic, one of the lead researchers, says the Emotiv is not optimized to capture the P300 signal, but if it were he says, “P300 has a promising use within interrogation protocols that enable detection of potential criminal details held by the suspect.”

Martinovic raised the specter of hackers, but Rebels know the hackers are by-and-large the good guys. But the researchers claim that if users download “rogue applications” (read: malware) that could have their brains hacked for sensitive personal data. In other words, the same way a simple malware program now could record your keystrokes to tease out your passwords, the write malware in your eMotiv or iBrain headset could record your subconscious responses to tease all out kinds of little secrets.

Nevermind hackers. What happens when the government begins collecting such data? Sure they could use it to pluck a confession out of your brain, but what happens when they combine reading your subconscious with the algorithms that search for signals of intent? You’ve got yourself a thought-crime detector. Slap some electrodes to your brain, show you a picture of the president, or the flag, or a cop, or whatever… and they decide whether you’re a patriot or a terrorist. Get enough tech companies to cooperate and they’ll have Apple and Google turning you in for rogue thoughts.

Advance the scanner to the point it doesn’t have to physically touch your head and you’ll have cops hiding behind billboards snagging us off the freeway and TSA agents scanning our brain before we fly. We’re headed down a dark road.

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About the Author: Davi Barker

In grade school Davi refused to recite the pledge of allegiance because he didn't understand what it meant. He was ordered to do as he was told. In college he spent hours scouring through the congressional record trying to understand this strange machine. That's where he discovered Dr. Ron Paul. In 2007 he joined the End The Fed movement and found a political home with the libertarians. The Declaration of Independence claims that the government derives its power “from the consent of the governed." He does not consent.