“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”— Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, 1854
“A lot of hacking is playing with other people, you know, getting them to do strange things.”— Steve Wozniak
“We live in a world where all wars will begin as cyber wars… It’s the combination of hacking and massive, well-coordinated disinformation campaigns.”— Jared Cohen
“With brain hacking experiments, I’ve hacked into Morgan Freeman’s brain. He was the most famous and the most nerve wracking because I got really awestruck when I met him, and the moment I was introduced to him, he challenged me there and then to hack his brain.”— Keith Barry
“Mind-hacking is the process of looking deep into your mind to control the source of all actions – your thoughts.”— Nicholas Hill
“We are no longer mysterious souls; we are now hackable animals”. So says an influential advisor to the World Economic Forum (WEF). Is this true? He is a very smart guy. Why would he even say such a thing if it isn’t true in at least some respects? If true, what exactly might this mean for us about-to-be-hacked folks?
Just when I was thinking that things can’t possibly get any worse in our world today, along comes this WEF guy Yuval Harari to help redefine “worse”. You know of course who Yuval is, yes? Well, if not, he is, or maybe was, an advisor to WEF’s founder and chief honcho Klaus Schwab. Of late, Yuval has been disappeared from WEF-ville so far as I can discover. Wikipedia now has only a single mention: “In 2018 and 2020, Harari spoke at the World Economic Forum annual conference in Davos.”
Yuval Harari speaks
I wonder if maybe these statements by Harari in 2020 had something to do with this odd invisibility situation:
“We are no longer mysterious souls; we are now hackable animals”
“To hack human beings you need a lot of biological knowledge, a lot of computing power, and especially a lot of data.”
“If you have enough data about me and enough computing power and biological knowledge, you can hack my body, my brain, my life. You can reach a point where you know me better than I know myself.”
“If you know enough biology and have enough computing power and data, you can hack my body and my brain and my life, and you can understand me better than I understand myself. You can know my personality type, my political views, my sexual preferences, my mental weaknesses, my deepest fears and hopes. You know more about me than I know about myself. And you can do that not just to me, but to everyone.”
“A system that understands us better than we understand ourselves can predict our feelings and decisions, can manipulate our feelings and decisions, and can ultimately make decisions for us.”
“The power to hack human beings can of course be used for good purposes like provided much better healthcare, but if this power falls into the hands of a 21st Century Stalin, the result will be the worst totalitarian regime in human history.”
Are we really, or maybe just becoming, “hackable animals”?
And what exactly does “hackable” mean? This turns out to be a very big deal today in some places, about which I have been until now blissfully unaware. Here are a few keywords that I found:
- Cognitive warfare
- Weaponized neurological resources
- Brain hacking
- Brain hijacking
- Mind hacking
Every one of these terms seems extremely scary. To me, at least.
Where to begin? Well, here is a short article posted by John Mac Ghlionn via The Epoch Times and ZeroHedge on February 8, 2023: “The WEF Wants To Hack Your Brain”:
“At a recent World Economic Forum (WEF) presentation, those in attendance were told that attempts to decode the human brain was already well underway. As Tim Hinchcliffe, a man who has been sounding the alarm on the WEF’s plans for years, noted, the presentation came five years after historian Yuval Noah Harari told those in Davos that human beings were entirely hackable. We are, in a nutshell, walking, breathing, living algorithms, according to the academic. Harari’s vision, at the time, was a thing of feverish fantasy. Now, though, this fantasy is fast becoming a reality [emphasis added].”
“At the WEF Annual Meeting 2023, The Atlantic’s CEO Nicholas Thompson chaired a session called ‘Ready for Brain Transparency?’ The session opened with an Orwellian-inspired video showing a scenario in which employees’ brainwaves were monitored and decoded. Besides using the information gathered to evaluate employee performance, brainwaves were decoded to assess whether or not any individuals had participated in criminal activity.”
“… From the origin of the coronavirus to claims of Russian collusion, this is the golden age of information warfare. But the golden age, with its focus on media control, is currently evolving. As the academics Tzu-Chieh Hung and Tzu-Wei Hung explained in an article last year, cognitive warfare extends from focusing solely on media control to explicit brain control. Cognitive warfare seeks to weaponize ‘neurological resources’ as well as ‘mass communication techniques.’ Whereas information warfare focuses almost entirely on the input of information, cognitive warfare focuses on both the input and the output (that is, our behaviors).”
Just what we need – brain control, probably by an AI mechanism of some kind. Maybe a relative of ChatGPT?
Turns out that “brain hacking” is just old-fashioned “neurohacking”
Who knew? Well, not me for one, and possibly you also. Thanks to always-helpful Wikipedia, we have here what appears to be a much larger, and older, field of endeavor: “Neurohacking”:
“Neurohacking is a subclass of biohacking, focused specifically on the brain. Neurohackers seek to better themselves or others by ‘hacking the brain’ to improve reflexes, learn faster, or treat psychological disorders. The modern neurohacking movement has been around since the 1980s.”
“Transmission of electrical currents. There are three methods by which electrical currents are transmitted through the brain: deep brain stimulation (DBS), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).”
“Deep brain stimulation (DBS). DBS involves implanting an electrical device, or neurostimulator, into the brain. The neurostimulator is a thin wire with electrodes at its tip. Low levels of electric current are transmitted through the brain. The location where the electrodes are implanted depends on the neurological disorder being treated. The company Neuralink hopes that their DBS device will include ‘as many as 3072 electrodes distributed along 96 threads’, and that the procedure to implant the threads would be as non-invasive as LASIK eye surgery.”
“Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS sends short bursts of magnetic energy to the left frontal cortex through a small electromagnetic coil. Some studies have found that TMS improves cognition and motor performance. Other studies have investigated the relation between TMS and its ability to recover lost memories.”
“Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Brain cells, or neurons, emit chemical signals across the gaps, or synapses, between neurons. When learning a new skill or topic, the neurons involved in understanding that particular subject are then primed to emit signals more readily. Less electrical current is required to signal the neurons to secrete the chemicals for transport across the synapse. tDCS involves running a very low current (less than 2mA) through an anode and a cathode placed on the head. The research shows that brain function improves around the anode, with no change or reduced function around the cathode.”
“Side effects and potential risks. Most manufacturers fail to disclose the potential side effects of neurohacking devices, including significant changes to the user’s self-identity and decreased reasoning skills. Affordable neurohacking devices are available online with prices ranging from $99 to $800, making them easily accessible to consumers. For instance, a ‘brain stimulator’ device produced by the ‘Brain Stimulator’ company that utilizes tDCS is priced $127 to $179. However, these devices are rarely regulated by the government. Using these unapproved devices with no medical supervision could cause devastating side effects. Cases have been cited where individuals physically harm others as a side effect of neurohacking.”
It is indeed good to know that I can go online today and order up a relatively inexpensive “brain stimulator”. Which I may just do, since my brain seems greatly in need of regular stimulation of some sort. Or maybe not …
A bit disconcerting as well to see that the ever-present Elon Musk has his busy fingers in this field also, via his Neuralink company.
Even a book out on this topic yet …
From Amazon, as you might expect: “The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains Hardcover ”:
The author’s bio brief: “Robert H. Lustig, M.D., MSL, is professor of pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology and a member of the Institute for Health Policy Studies at University of California, San Francisco. He has authored 120 peer-reviewed articles and 70 reviews, as well as Fat Chance, The Fat Chance Cookbook, and Metabolical.”
An endorsement also, sort of: “Our health, resistance to disease, and ability to function on a day-to-day basis have essentially been hijacked, all in the name of corporate profits. Dr. Lustig explores how industry has manipulated our most deep-seated survival instincts to motivate our food choices in a way that directly undermines our ability to survive. But more importantly, The Hacking of the American Mind eloquently reveals how we can disengage from this influence and re-establish ourselves on a path to wellness.” — David Perlmutter, MD, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Grain Brain and Brain Maker
Brain hacking as a marketing tool
In the right hands, it seems that almost everything can be made into a marketing tool, as Ivy Wigmore in TechTarget notes in: “brain hacking”:
“Brain hacking is the application of techniques and/or technologies to affect an individual’s mental state, cognitive processes or level of function.”
“Brain hacking is also used by external parties such as marketers and product designers to influence individual behavior. Social engineering, which exploits individual vulnerabilities to conduct security breaches, can also be considered a type of brain hacking. When the intention is to manipulate the target’s behavior without their knowledge or consent, brain hacking is sometimes referred to as brain hijacking.”
Brain hijacking, yet. Or maybe that’s just another term for cognitive warfare, or even weaponized cognitive resources.
How can I tell if I’ve been brain-hacked?
This seems to be where things get a bit sticky. Can a hacked brain tell its putative owner, like myself, that it’s been hacked? Or maybe a hacked brain can be programmed, if that’s the right term, not to rat-out its hacker.
I might assume that, in the absence of a bunch of wires sticking out of my head or thereabouts, I have not (yet, anyway) been hardware-hacked or flavors thereof.
This leaves just the programming, propaganda, media, experts-say, and similar touchless methods to worry about. Kind of like a touchless carwash, maybe?
This analogy may actually work. You may recall my posts (see here, here, and here) on psychologist Mattias Mass-Formation-Psychosis/Hypnosis Desmet, who claims that us humans have a tendency to be other-directed in “masses” (which used to be called crowds or mobs). Bottom line with Desmet is …
“… we identified three groups that form when a mass rises: the masses themselves, who truly go along with the story and are ‘hypnotized’ (usually about 30 percent); a group that is not hypnotized but chooses to not go against the grain (usually about 40 to 60 percent); a group that is not hypnotized and actively resists the masses (ranging from 10 to 30 percent).”
This says that as much as 30% of a population are readily made into true believers by traditional means (strong leader, propaganda, repetition, fear, etc.). No brain hacks needed, or perhaps they are self-brain-hacked. Then there are maybe 30% who are resistant to traditional brain hacking methods. This leaves 40% to 60% who largely go-along-to-get-along, with peer-pressure being the main old-fashioned hack.
For most purposes, we don’t really need any high-tech or brain-invasive hacking approaches. It would be comforting to think that these kinds of neurohacking techniques will mostly be aimed at real medical needs. Nice, but probably not very likely.
So, it seems that we normal folks are going to be primary targets for bad guys of various persuasions to gain brain control. Brain hacking is simply too good for them to ignore.
Surprise: Elon Musk is among the current leaders – maybe
In August 2020, Elon was busy in his spare time pre-Twitter messing with brains. The BBC reported that: “Elon Musk to show off working brain-hacking device”:
“Elon Musk is due to demonstrate a working brain-to-machine interface as part of his ambitious plans to give people superhuman powers. His brain-hacking company, Neuralink [founded in 2017], applied to start human trials last year [i.e., 2019]. But Friday’s demonstration will involve a robot and ‘neurons firing in real time’, a series of tweets reveals. The interface could allow people with neurological conditions to control phones or computers with their mind.”
“But the long-term ambition is to usher in an age of what Mr. Musk calls ‘superhuman cognition’. People need to merge with artificial intelligence, he says, in part to avoid a scenario where AI becomes so powerful it destroys the human race.”
“The device the company is developing consists of a tiny probe containing more than 3,000 electrodes attached to flexible threads thinner than a human hair, which can monitor the activity of 1,000 brain neurons. In its last update, more than a year ago, the company said it had carried out tests on a monkey that had been able to control a computer with its brain. It has also built a ‘neurosurgical robot’ that it says can insert 192 electrodes into the brain every minute.”
Exciting achievement, yes? Well, maybe not so much given that the average human brain contains roughly 100 billion neurons, give or take a few billions. This late 2020 story was not about humans anyway, but about a pig called Gertrude. Maybe a good place to practice, assuming that Gertrude is onboard with this.
The BBC further reports that Musk has grander plans than Gertrude and monkeys:
“With a high bandwidth brain machine interface, we can go along for the ride and effectively have the option of merging with AI. Connecting the brain to an interface would create a new layer of ‘superintelligence’ in the human brain, he added, something people ‘already have via their phones’.”
All of this brain-machine interface stuff turns out to be a lot more difficult than hoped. The Conversation has a nice article describing these problems: “Neuralink: brain hacking is exceptionally hard, no matter what Elon Musk says”.
While Elon and his good buddies continue trying to wire up a few more of our alleged 100 billion neurons, others are making great progress using indirect, non-invasive approaches.
Keith Barry gives it his best, or something
Who you might ask is Keith Barry? Well, according to Wikipedia, good old Keith is an Irish mentalist, hypnotist, magician and activist for the elderly. He graduated from NUI Galway in 1998 with an honors chemistry degree, but left his science career behind in the year 2000 to pursue a career in entertainment and motivational speaking. In his own words:
“How does the subconscious mind work? Is it independent of the conscious mind? Is it programmed by experiences or instructions? Many questions come up, but the one answer is common: if you can access the subconscious, then you can reprogram it, period!”
“By combining elements such as hypnosis, magic, neurolinguistic programming and psychology, I can make it appear that I can hack into people’s brains.”
If these quotes don’t establish his credibility adequately, in 2014 Keith starred on Irish TV3 with his show Brain Hacker, which featured distinguished guests from the world of magic including Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels, Max Maven, and Uri Geller.
Umm … let’s move on …
Advertisers, media companies, and our phones are programming us
This will surely come as a surprise to almost no one. Such non-invasive brain hacking methodology may well have begun in earnest by Edward Bernays in the 1920s. You know all about Ed, yes? Edward Louis Bernays was an American theorist, considered a pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, and referred to in his obituary as ‘the father of public relations’. No cell phones to work with but he employed nearly everything else available then in mass communications.
A bit more recently, we have a 2017 report on CBS News 60 Minutes by Anderson Cooper: “What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care”:
“According to a former Google product manager you are about to hear from, Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked. He is one of the few tech insiders to publicly acknowledge that the companies responsible for programming your phones are working hard to get you and your family to feel the need to check in constantly. Some programmers call it ‘brain hacking’ and the tech world would probably prefer you didn’t hear about it. But Tristan Harris openly questions the long-term consequences of it all and we think it’s worth putting down your phone to listen:”
“Tristan Harris: So Snapchat’s the most popular messaging service for teenagers. And they invented this feature called ‘streaks,’ which shows the number of days in a row that you’ve sent a message back and forth with someone. So now you could say, ‘Well, what’s the big deal here?’ Well, the problem is that kids feel like, ‘Well, now I don’t want to lose my streak.’ But it turns out that kids actually when they go on vacation are so stressed about their streak that they actually give their password to, like, five other kids to keep their streaks going on their behalf. And so you could ask when these features are being designed, are they designed to most help people live their life? Or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?”
“Anderson Cooper: Is Silicon Valley programming apps or are they programming people?”
“Tristan Harris: Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. They are programming people. There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true.”
Bet you didn’t know that these media folks call whatever it is that they do, brain hacking. Me neither. Kind of scary to think that this term might be very accurate.
If brain hacking seems bad, the Internet of Bodies (IoB) is much worse
I have heard a bit about the “Internet of Things (IoT)”, but this is my first encounter with its application to us folks, aka “bodies”. Technology news blog The Sociable in March 2022 reported on where brain hacking and its kin may be headed: “Yuval Harari’s hackable humans warning at WEF is becoming reality: DARPA is researching preconscious brain signals to know what someone believes to be true or not”:
“DARPA is launching a new research program that analyzes preconscious brain signals to determine if someone believes something is true or not, just as historian Dr. Yuval Noah Harari warned about hacking humans at the WEF annual meeting in 2020.”
“Under the premise of identifying people at risk of depression and suicide, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched the Neural Evidence Aggregation Tool (NEAT) program, which focuses on ‘aggregating preconscious brain signals to determine what someone believes to be true.’”
“NEAT would triangulate responses to aggregate evidence and determine if the person reading the stimuli statements believes they are true, false, or indeterminate” — DARPA NEAT Program, 2022
“According to the Pentagon’s research funding arm, ‘NEAT aims to develop a new cognitive science tool that identifies people at risk of suicide by using preconscious brain signals rather than asking questions and waiting for consciously filtered responses.’”
“While mental health among soldiers is a serious issue for the Department of Defense, applications coming out of the NEAT program have the very real potential to give governments and corporations the ability to hack human beings at the preconscious level.”
“By bringing together recent advances in cognitive science, neuroscience, physiological sensors, data science and machine learning, the NEAT program will develop processes that can measure what a person believes to be true.” — DARPA NEAT Program, 2022
“NEAT”? This seems anything but “neat”.
Welcome to the Internet of Bodies (IoB)
Just when you might think that things can’t get any worse, they do – in the form of IoB. Brain hacking? Passé. IoB goes after everything we have as humans. More from The Sociable article above:
“Now, DARPA is looking to develop a novel cognitive science tool that enlists machine learning and ‘physiological sensors’ to detect what someone believes to be true.”
“If this technology ever makes its way into the general population through the Internet of Bodies (IoB) ecosystem of inter-connected devices that can be worn, swallowed, or implanted — then Harari’s dystopian scenario could prove truly prophetic.”
“’By bringing together recent advances in cognitive science, neuroscience, physiological sensors, data science and machine learning,’ DARPA says, ‘the NEAT program will develop processes that can measure what a person believes to be true.’ This will be possible by:”
> Presenting carefully crafted stimuli that are designed to evoke specific preconscious mental processes.
> Detecting the resulting preconscious processes using current physiological sensors combined with state-of-the-art signal processing and neural analytics.
> Using advances in machine learning and data science to aggregate the preconscious responses collected across a set of stimuli into a final measurement that quantifies what a person believes to be true for a specific topic.
Brain hacking carried to an almost unimaginable extreme.
You of course know what’s in the Internet of Bodies
No? Well here it is. Makes me wish now that I didn’t know.
No end of body targets to be hacked in one way or another.
While it seems that we might still be “mysterious souls”, it is pretty clear that we are now “hackable animals” as well. And not just for brain-hacking purposes. Our whole selves are in the sights of the purveyors of the coming Internet of Bodies. Full-self hacking yet. Much of this appears to be well underway. We can anticipate some sort of body-hacking occurring on a daily basis. This is of course not all bad news, since a goodly number of such hacks are designed for valuable medical purposes. The bad news as always will come from our abundant supply of bad guys and their control-obsessed helpers. Perhaps it has always been this way, except they now have amazing technology with which to hack us.
- Eliza Strickland writing in the Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute’s IEEE Spectrum in 2014 describes how some DIY folks got started: “The Latest DIY Craze: Brain Hacking Home experimenters are building rigs to send currents through their heads”:
“Anthony Lee had just begun trying to hack his brain when his girlfriend caught him at it. He was sitting in the living room of his Alabama home with electrodes attached to his head, fiddling with the device he’d built to send a current through his gray matter, when she walked in. ‘It was that awkward moment when your family walks in on you while you’re doing science,’ he says with a laugh.”
“Lee was an early member of a DIY community that’s sprung up around a technology called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). This noninvasive way to jolt brain cells is being studied in labs and clinics for its potential to reveal how our brains function—and perhaps to augment abilities or treat disorders. Unlike most other brain-tweaking technologies, tDCS doesn’t require expensive equipment; all it takes is a 9-volt battery, some simple circuits, and a couple of electrodes. Consequently, it didn’t take long for so-called biohackers to band together and come up with schematics for devices.”
And more recently …
“But now the community is taking a turn from enhancing healthy people to helping the sick. With word of tDCS spreading, more people are trying it to treat Musk vs. Schwab at World Government Summit — Two Competing Visions for the Future disorders such as depression, ADHD, and chronic pain. Lee says he and other pioneers are fielding lots of questions from such patients. ‘Most of us try to help as much as we can, but we’re not working in a lab doing the real experiments, nor are we psychiatrists,’ he says.”
- Bruno Martín writing in Open Mind, a non-profit project run by BBVA (Spanish Bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria), offers this caution: “Cybersecurity to Guard Against Brain Hacking”:
“Science and neurotechnology haven’t come far enough to enable mind-reading, but already there are consumer-grade devices which can register delicate neural signals. Electroencephalography (EEG) headsets, for instance, are used in marketing studies to analyze emotions and unconscious reactions to certain products or events. ‘These mental data can be processed to reveal critical information about a person,’ says Pablo Ballarín, cofounder of the cybersecurity firm Balusian.”
“Neurotechnology’s security problems aren’t new: there could be cases of harassment, organized crime or personal data traffic, just like those already happening in other digital sectors. However, what is new is the nature of neural data. As these are generated directly in the brain, they can encode sensitive medical information and clues as to our identity and the intimate mechanisms guiding our personal choices.”
“… it’s possible to plant spyware in a brain-machine interface—specifically, one designed to control video games with the mind—that enables them to steal information from the user. By inserting subliminal images in the videogame, hackers were able to probe the player’s unconscious mental reaction to specific stimuli, such as postal addresses, bank details or human faces. This way, they were able to glean information including a credit card’s PIN number and a place of residence.”
- Michael Nevradakis via The Burning Platform emphasizes Elon Musk’s concern about unregulated AI: “Musk vs. Schwab at World Government Summit — Two Competing Visions for the Future”
“Musk called upon governments to develop safety regulations for AI, comparing its rise to the development of nuclear technology.”
“’You look at, say, the discovery of nuclear physics. You had nuclear power generation but also nuclear bombs,’ said Musk, adding:”
“I think we need to regulate AI safety, frankly. Think of any technology which is potentially a risk to people, like if it’s aircraft or cars or medicine, we have regulatory bodies that oversee the public safety of cars and planes and medicine.”
“I think we should have a similar set of regulatory oversight for artificial intelligence, because I think it is actually a bigger risk to society.”