H+ zero-day vulnerabilities, plus cetacean personhood

Paul Raven @ 13-07-2011

Couple of interesting nuggets here; first up is a piece from Richard Yonck at H+ Magazine on the risks inherent to the human body becoming an augmented and extended platform for technologies, which regular readers will recognise as a fugue on one of my favourite themes, Everything Can And Will Be Hacked. Better lock down your superuser privileges, folks…

In coming years, numerous devices and technologies will become available that make all manner of wireless communications possible in or on our bodies. The standards for Body Area Networks (BANs) are being established by the IEEE 802.15.6 task group. These types of devices will create low-power in-body and on-body nodes for a variety of medical and non-medical applications. For instance, medical uses might include vital signs monitoring, glucose monitors and insulin pumps, and prosthetic limbs. Non-medical applications could include life logging, gaming and social networking. Clearly, all of these have the potential for informational and personal security risks. While IEEE 802.15.6 establishes different levels of authentication and encryption for these types of devices, this alone is no guarantee of security. As we’ve seen repeatedly, unanticipated weaknesses in program logic can come to light years after equipment and software are in place. Methods for safely and securely updating these devices will be essential due to the critical nature of what they do. Obviously, a malfunctioning software update for something as critical as an implantable insulin pump could have devastating consequences.

Yonck then riffs on the biotech threat for a while; I’m personally less worried about the existential risk of rogue biohackers releasing lethal plagues, because the very technologies that make that possible are also making it much easier to defeat those sorts of pandemics. (I’m more worried about a nation-state releasing one by mistake, to be honest; there’s precedent, after all.)

Of more interest to me (for an assortment of reasons, not least of which is a novel-scale project that’s been percolating at the back of my brainmeat for some time) is his examination of the senses as equivalent to ‘ports’ in a computer system; those I/O channels are ripe for all sorts of hackery and exploits, and the arrival of augmented reality and brain-machine interfaces will provide incredibly tempting targets, be it for commerce or just for the lulz. Given it’s taken less than a week for the self-referential SEO hucksters and social media gurus douchebags to infest the grouting between the circles of Google+, forewarned is surely forearmed… and early-adopterdom won’t be much of a defence. (As if it ever was.)

Meanwhile, a post at R U Sirius’ new zine ACCELER8OR (which, given its lack of by-line, I assume to be the work of The Man Himself) details the latest batch of research into advanced sentience in cetaceans. We’ve talked about dolphin personhood before, and while my objections to the enshrinement of non-human personhood persist (I think we’re wasting time by trying to get people to acknowledge the rights of higher animals when we’ve still not managed to get everyone to acknowledge the rights of their fellow humans regardless of race, creed or class) it’s still inspiring and fascinating to consider that, after years of looking into space for another sentient species to make contact with, there’s been one swimming around in the oceans all along.

Dovetailing with Yonck’s article above, this piece extrapolates onward to discuss the emancipation of sentient machines. (What if your AI-AR firewall system suddenly started demanding a five-day working week?)

A recent Forbes blog poses a key question on the issue of AI civil rights: if an AI can learn and understand its programming, and possibly even alter the algorithms that control its behavior and purpose, is it really conscious in the same way that humans are? If an AI can be programmed in such a fashion, is it really sentient in the same way that humans are?

Even putting aside the hard question of consciousness, should the hypothetical AIs of mid-century have the same rights as humans?  The ability to vote and own property? Get married? To each other? To humans? Such questions would make the current gay rights controversy look like an episode of “The Brady Bunch.”

Of course, this may all a moot point given the existential risks faced by humanity (for example, nuclear annihilation) as elucidated by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and others.  Or, our AIs actually do become sentient, self-reprogram themselves, and “20 minutes later,” the technological singularity occurs (as originally conceived by Vernor Vinge).

Give me liberty or give me death? Until an AI or dolphin can communicate this sentiment to us, we can’t prove if they can even conceptualize such concepts as “liberty” or “death.” Nor are dolphins about to take up arms anytime soon even if they wanted to — unless they somehow steal prosthetic hands in a “Day of the Dolphin”-like scenario and go rogue on humanity.

It would be mighty sad were things to come to that… but is anyone else thinking “that would make a brilliant movie”?


Body Area Networks: medical monitoring on the move

Paul Raven @ 11-10-2010

The Body Area Network shouldn’t be an entirely new idea to regular readers, but for those of you new to the term, it does what it says on the tin, i.e. networks together an assortment of gadgets and devices located on or in the human body. Those devices can be pretty much anything that produces or processes a signal… so as well as the potential for augmenting yourself into a Stephensonian gargoyle, you can also turn the electronic eye inwards by rigging up systems to monitor your internal organs and send the data to your phone:

Dubbed the Human++ BAN platform, the system converts IMEC’s ultra-low-power electrocardiogram sensors into wireless nodes in a short-range network, transmitting physiological data to a hub – the patient’s cellphone. From there, the readings can be forwarded to doctors via a Wi-Fi or 3G connection. They can also be displayed on the phone or sound an alarm when things are about to go wrong, giving patients like me a chance to try to slow our heart rates and avoid an unnecessary shock.

Julien Penders, who developed the system, says it can also work with other low-power medical sensors, such as electroencephalograms (EEGs) to monitor neurological conditions or electromyograms to detect neuromuscular diseases. Besides helping those already diagnosed with chronic conditions, BANs could be used by people at risk of developing medical problems – the so-called “worried well” – or by fitness enthusiasts and athletes who want to keep tabs on their physiological processes during training.

Lots of street uses, too, once this stuff gets cheap (which shouldn’t take long). For instance, we humans tend to get competitive about pretty much anything that can be measured and recorded, so perhaps we’ll get forums devoted to people pushing their bodies to extremes – be it through drug use, extreme sports or even epic-scale lassitude – and posting the evidence. Whole lot of new (and weird) categories for the Guinness Book of Records coming down the pipeline…


Ditch the keyboard and mouse, go with Skinput

Paul Raven @ 05-03-2010

Although my aesthetic tastes tend toward the more retro versions of cyberpunk style (born in the final few years of Gen X, can’t help it), I’m still very seduced by the sheer pragmatic awesome of using your body as an input device for your portable hardware [via SlashDot].

Need to turn down the volume on your PMP? No problem; just jab a finger at your left forearm.

[… the] Skinput prototype is a system that monitors acoustic signals on your arm to translate gestures and taps into input commands. Just by touching different points on your limb you can tell your portable device to change volume, answer a call, or turn itself off. Even better, Harrison can couple Skinput with a pico projector so that you can see a graphic interface on your arm and use the acoustic signals to control it.

Projector, pah. A proper cyberpunk would get the controls tattooed on there instead. 🙂


Billboards to make advertising more personally touching

Paul Raven @ 14-10-2008

I imagine most of you have heard of Body Area Networks by now – the theoretical layer of communications protocols and devices that will surround your person as portable computing devices become more ubiquitous. And I imagine none of you will be surprised to hear that plenty of folk are working on ways to use BAN to advertise to you more effectively.

A South Korean research institution has come up with an idea that is meant to circumvent the perennial problem of the billboard – namely, that a goodly percentage of the people viewing it will have no interest in the product currently being advertised. The solution?

The Korean patent gets around this problem by suggesting that people using a body area network could touch an electronic poster to tune it to their interests. The display would download details about that person’s interests and recent activities, and display a relevant advert. Downloads like detailed product brochures could also be offered.

If you’ve spotted the obvious flaw there, don’t worry, so has New Scientist – and the researchers have, too:

Whether people would want to interact with ads in this way is another matter. To address this, the patent suggests goodies could be offered too – for example special-offer coupons, or even music and films. Billboards in places where people wait for buses or trains would be ideal spots to get people interacting, suggest the team.

Hmm. I might tentatively predict a new sport among the young and anarchic that involves developing a false personal profile that triggers, ah, rather specialist products and services from such devices… [image by numberstumper]