Cybernews podcast #10: brain hacking tips for plebs and rich alike

Super smart algorithms now allow computers to analyze brain signals and decode them via ever smarter gadgets. They can be fun and useful but there is – as always – a catch.

Not that long ago, consumer neurotech devices – headsets, electrode-enabled earbuds, hats, and other gadgets that connect our brains to computers – were quite rightly dismissed as little more than toys.

But things move fast these days, especially in tech. Thanks to recent leaps in neurotechnology and AI, these devices can now basically hack our brains. This can be fun and in some cases, extremely useful. For example, they can help to detect serious illnesses, and Neuralink’s brain chip implant promises to restore full mobility to paralyzed patients.

However, the implications are disturbing. We shouldn’t forget that the same tech that allows us to analyze ourselves also usually gives others, namely the creators of these devices, or the government, access too. And these actors have their own interests in mind.

Cybernews journalists are back with a new episode of our podcast “Through a Glass Darkly.” This time, we’re discussing whether so-called brain hacking is more useful than dangerous for individuals, our governments, and corporate culture. In this 44-minute episode, we’re nitpicking topics such as:

  • Would we like to have our brain hacked
  • The usefulness of Neuralink and other neurotech devices
  • Mine my brain, get more data, sell extra product
  • New types of workplace surveillance
  • Military conflicts, neurostrikes, and the Havana Syndrome
  • Superhumans vs intelligent AI

Some neurotech can tell us if we’re wired to be conservative or liberal, or if we’re in love or just want to sleep with someone really badly. Other devices are useful in another way – for instance, in American football, smart football helmets will soon diagnose concussions immediately after they occur.

Devices can also track the slow-down of activities in brain regions associated with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and dementia. They can already warn people who suffer from epilepsy of an impending seizure.

Cybernews senior journalists Vilius Petkauskas and Justinas Vainilavičius, who both chatted to me, Gintaras, in this episode say the potential of neurotechnology in the field of medical science is hugely promising.

But that’s it. Other types of uses spook us, and rightly so. That’s because technology – as much as the enthusiasts, the moguls, and the so-called visionary oligarchs would like us to believe – is not only about controlling nature. Even more importantly, it’s also about controlling other people.

“To use this sort of technology just to mine more data or sell more products sounds almost banal to me. What scares me the most is that the power that this technology entails will be concentrated in the hands of the few individuals with no accountability. Allegations of animal torture against Neuralink are a huge red flag to me,” says Justinas.

Autocratic states using neurotech is already a reality, too. In China, workers in government-controlled factories are required to wear electroencephalographic (EEG) sensors to monitor their productivity and their emotional states, and they can be sent home based on what their brains reveal.

Young female with electrode equipment on her head. Image by Shutterstock.

Now, China isn’t democratic, so it’s quite easy to imagine the leap from productivity monitoring to thought crime surveillance. But the governments in the West can use the tech for their schemes if suddenly democracies are toppled and a new strong Putin-type leader needs to surveil everyone’s thoughts and emotions.

The standard office environment might also change. What if your employer, say, Amazon or Meta, decided to measure your attention with the help of a neurotech gadget?

In case you are thinking, Well, even if my employer tries to measure my attention, they won’t know what I am paying attention to, think again.

Research on workplace engagement funded by the Bavarian State Ministry for Education and Culture found that with EEG, it is now possible to classify the type of activity an individual is engaged in—central tasks (programming, database, web development), peripheral tasks (setting up a development environment, writing documentation), and meta tasks (social media browsing, reading news sites).

No one would be comfortable with this, we suppose. Quite obviously, regulatory oversight is needed but it also needs to be carefully balanced so that innovation wouldn’t be stifled.

And Vilius imagines that the super smart consumer neurotech devices might soon proliferate and start helping some workers gain a competitive advantage over their colleagues – not only over intelligent AI machines.

“With these devices, we would need to compete with each other. It will be like having a computer and not having a computer in the same workplace. In a sense, owning and using such devices might become unavoidable – whether you want it or nor, whether you like it or not, whether it’s invasive or not,” says Vilius.

“If enough people have it and it gives you a competitive edge and serves as an extension of your brain, the device will be used. In a few years or decades, our brains might be like old Nokias.”

What does “through a glass darkly” mean?

While our primary goal is to maintain objectivity, we acknowledge our inherent humanity as we strive to provide our readers, viewers, and now listeners with a comprehensive understanding of the ever-expanding cyber landscape. This is precisely why we chose the name for our podcast, "Through a Glass Darkly," drawing inspiration from the biblical expression used by the Apostle Paul, signifying a limited clarity when it comes to envisioning the future.

Our discussions often involve speculation about what lies ahead, eliciting both excitement and trepidation regarding the tech evolution or revolution. As we maintain a strong emphasis on cybersecurity, we find ourselves naturally inclined toward a somewhat "doomsday" perspective, perceiving the world through lenses shaded in darkness rather than rose-tinted hues.