A deeply fascinating and, by measures, terrifying milestone on the path to truly ubiquitous networked computation.
The BBC notes that security firm, McAfee, was able to remotely compromise a wireless, implantable insulin pump, thereby propelling the conversation about medical implants into the realm of cyberwarfare. Another McAfee researcher claims to have “captured the signal” of an implanted heart defibrillator, only to have thrown the signal right back at the device causing it to shut off mercilessly. As a class, such devices are increasingly being implanted into us fragile apes in order to contain the threats of heart disease, diabetes, and other slow-moving but potentially fatal conditions that might thwart our god-like ascent into techno-superiority. But grok this, ye mighty, and despair:
“We can influence any pump within a 300ft [91m] range,” Mr [Barnaby] Jack told the BBC. “We can make that pump dispense its entire 300 unit reservoir of insulin and we can do that without requiring its ID number”… Making the device empty its cartridge into a host’s bloodstream would cause “deep trouble””
Security concerns for the nascent field of wireless implants are certainly welcomed but the event stands more broadly as a glowing sign of the times. The relentless ubiquitizing of computation is working its way into our bodies. As has been noted elsewhere [pdf] the path of finance and innovation for these waves of emerging technology typically follows the military-medical-consumer pipeline, walking down the line of survivability from being blown up by an Afghani IED, past spastic hearts and hungry cells, into urban navigation and caffeine acquisition. And maybe transdermal metabolic sleeves for networked jogging or ward implants for not-so-bad convicts squeezed out of overcrowded prison farms and remotely monitored for geofencing violations or the odd spike in muscular adrenergics. The military has the money to develop the tech and treat its soldiers, who are summarily discharged into hospitals that facilitate the transfer of technology into the private sector. Point being, if you’re starting to save up for that cybernetic occipital mat implant, you’d be most well-served to enlist the ready hand of McAfee Security to guard your mind meats from the shady legions of digital malcontents. Standard fees, of course, do apply.
All of this is a fairly long-winded way to observe that our computers are getting under our skin quite literally and likely will continue to do so in ever more alarming and strangely-compelling ways. Consider security, who or what has access and when? How do you guard against Lulzsec or your employer? If your insurance fails and you miss too many payments on that monthly defibrillator bill, will they hit the kill switch? What federal agency will legislate your biochip provider to unlock the requisite NSA Backdoor? Somebody must think of the children… If your visual stream runs through a Tyrell Corp chipset, what did the EULA say about your right to what you see? Marketers and advertisers have done some of the most profound work to get inside our brains. What might they do when able to write on its walls? Or maybe you take the other tack and yield to the algorithms, letting them intercede on your behalf and take care of those mundane everyday tasks for you. Habits that write code and leave network trails, filters that screen out the messiness, the ugliness, the uncertainty. Let the world be arranged in concise chunks and loops, dulled to the want for some computational serendipity.
It’s this sort of crazy futuring – or “diagetic prototyping”, in the parlance of our times – what’s been fleshing-out the framework of our cybernetic imminence. Or, if not imminence… our… unavoidable tendencies. The holy glory of this massive frontal cortex gave us the wicked gift, our greatest curse: the talent for foresight, also known as “worry”. We fire up that hundred-billion-strong living network and run crazy simulations across manifold beds of electromagnetic neurochemistry hoping to prepare and predict and envision. We plan our futures. We model them, and paint them, and give them color and depth and complexity, all allure and beckoning, baleful and impossible. Then we use that other cursed blessing to mold those plans into reality and shape the world to our vision. Thus, technology extrudes from our hands on waves of innovation eventually replacing a lost limb or taming a wild heart or embedded in a little chipset behind your left ear gently talking only to you, guiding you through a foreign town, mentioning waypoints and destinations, happily de-babelizing the local tongues… and coyly whispering that if you come in to Paolo’s Rosticerria by 5pm, the second plate is half off.
We build machines and they help us. Mostly. We invite them into our lives and, in turn, we figure out how to use our ape brains to make them smarter and more capable. They too are the convergence of computation and networked intelligence simultaneously celebrating our own technical expertise and foreshadowing our eventual obsolescence. Now, it might surprise you but I don’t fancy myself much of a Singularitarian. Maybe it’s just the halcyon nostalgia infecting my lobes, addled by decades of indole and wind-blown pollens, but I do keep to that old mystic faith holding consciousness above computation. That there is some unknowable anima inside it all, rolling and dancing forward with the inertia of the stars. That the power demands to model such a nigh-infinite structure could only be met by wielding the entire computational mass of the known universe. The self can only ever be fully known by the Self, when the atman is consumed by the brahman.
It is the light of this abiding faith that warms me in those cold, lonely nights, assailed by the flitting demons of artificial intelligence and robotic uprisings. I take comfort in this faith.