I have written about the joys of our impending robot overlords. The sex bots are the good news, the biological slave camps are the bad. But, hey, why should we worry? It isn’t like science is anywhere close to developing a true artificial brain or anything like that. Actually, given the fact that college entrance exams can be filled in using 140 characters or less, I sincerely doubt there are any humans capable of doing the requisite math. And given that there are schools offering degrees in how to use cardboard boxes, you would think we would be safe from impending robot overlords. But there’s always that one kid. The Bill Gates in his garage or the Steve Jobs in his whatever it is Steve Jobs hid in to escape his teenage years. There’s always that one really smart person who refuses to be held back by silly things like societal norms.
Sebastian Anthony reports that a small group of Canadian terrorists, a/k/a brilliant scientists, have built an artificial brain.
And not just to be a dinning alternative for the zombie apocalypse.
A group of neuroscientists and software engineers at the University of Waterloo in Canada are claiming to have built the world’s most complex, large-scale model simulation of the human brain. The simulated brain, which runs on a supercomputer, has a digital eye which it uses for visual input, a robotic arm that it uses to draw its responses — and it can pass the basic elements of an IQ test.
The brain, called Spaun (Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network), consists of 2.5 million simulated neurons, allowing it to perform eight different tasks. These tasks range from copy drawing to counting, to question answering and fluid reasoning. At this point, you should watch the video below to get a rough idea of how Spaun works — and then read on to find out why Spaun is so interesting.
Now, the nitty-gritty details. Spaun has a 28×28 (784-pixel) digital eye, and a robotic arm which can write on some paper. Every interaction with Spaun is through its 784-pixel eye. The scientists flash up a bunch of numbers and letters, which Spaun reads into memory, and then another letter or symbol acts as the command, telling Spaun what to do with its memory. The output of the task is then inscribed by the robotic arm.
Spaun’s brain consists of 2.5 million neurons that are broken down into a bunch of simulated cranial subsystems, including the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and thalamus, which are wired together with simulated neurons that very accurately mimic the wiring of a real human brain. The basic idea is that these subsystems behave very similarly to a real brain: Visual input is processed by the thalamus, the data is stored in the neurons, and then the basal ganglia fires off a task to a part of the cortex that’s designed to handle that task.
All of this computation is performed in a physiologically accurate way, with simulated voltage spikes and neurotransmitters. Even the limitations of the human brain are simulated, as you can see in the video below, with Spaun struggling to store more than a few numbers in its short-term memory.
The end result is a brain that is mechanistically simple (2.5 million neurons isn’t really much to write home about), but which is surprisingly flexible. By implementing just a handful of very basic tasks, it’s interesting to see how complex behavior begins to emerge. There are some tantalizing hints as to how the brain evolved: starting with simple tasks, and then building upon and weaving them together to build complex functionality. In the video below, Spaun recognizes the pattern of a number sequence — the kind of question you would find on an actual IQ test.
Moving forward, the research team, led by Chris Eliasmith, wants to imbue Spaun with adaptive plasticity — the ability to rewire its neurons and learn new tasks simply by doing, rather than being pre-programmed. As for the ultimate end goal, Eliasmith is excited about Spaun’s prospects. “It lets us understand how the brain, the biological substrate, and behavior relate. That’s important for all sorts of health applications,” he says in an interview with PopSci. In testing he has “killed” synthetic neurons and watched performance degrade, which could provide an interesting insight into natural aging and degenerative disorders.
Spaun is built upon Nengo, a graphical open-source software package for building simulated neural systems. You can actually download the Spaun neural model, if you want to simulate your own brain — though I suspect it might require a little more processing power than your desktop PC.
Ah yes, Spaun, rhymes with Spawn. As in Hell Spawn. What could possibly go wrong?
Well as it turns out, a little more than you might have thought. You see every digital interface has to have a way in and out to adjust programming. And to create the digital interface they have, they need to map the human brain. Naturally, you knew this was coming, hackers have now found a way to hack into your brain.
With a chilling hint of the not-so-distant future, researchers at the Usenix Security conference have demonstrated a zero-day vulnerability in your brain. Using a commercial off-the-shelf brain-computer interface, the researchers have shown that it’s possible to hack your brain, forcing you to reveal information that you’d rather keep secret.
As we’ve covered in the past, a brain-computer interface is a two-part device: There’s the hardware — which is usually a headset (an EEG; an electroencephalograph) with sensors that rest on your scalp — and software, which processes your brain activity and tries to work out what you’re trying to do (turn left, double click, open box, etc.) BCIs are generally used in a medical setting with very expensive equipment, but in the last few years cheaper, commercial offerings have emerged. For $200-300, you can buy an Emotiv or Neurosky BCI, go through a short training process, and begin mind controlling your computer.
Both of these commercial BCIs have an API — an interface that allows developers to use the BCI’s output in their own programs. In this case, the security researchers — from the Universities of Oxford and Geneva, and the University of California, Berkeley — created a custom program that was specially designed with the sole purpose of finding out sensitive data, such as the location of your home, your debit card PIN, which bank you use, and your date of birth. The researchers tried out their program on 28 participants (who were cooperative and didn’t know that they were being brain-hacked), and in general the experiments had a 10 to 40% chance of success of obtaining useful information (pictured above).
P300 responseTo extract this information, the researchers rely on what’s known as the P300 response — a very specific brainwave pattern (pictured right) that occurs when you recognize something that is meaningful (a person’s face), or when you recognize something that fits your current task (a hammer in the shed). The researchers basically designed a program that flashes up pictures of maps, banks, and card PINs, and makes a note every time your brain experiences a P300. Afterwards, it’s easy to pore through the data and work out — with fairly good accuracy — where a person banks, where they live, and so on.
The security researchers’ brain hacking setupIn a real-world scenario, the researchers foresee a game that is specially tailored by hackers to extract sensitive information from your brain — or perhaps an attack vector that also uses social engineering to lull you into a false sense of security. It’s harder to extract data from someone who knows they’re being attacked — as interrogators and torturers well know.
Moving forward, this brain hack can only improve in efficacy as BCIs become cheaper, more accurate, and thus more extensively used. Really, your only defense is to not think about the topic — but if you’re proactively on the defensive, then the hacker has already messed up. The only viable solution that I can think of is to ensure that you don’t use your brain-computer interface with shady software, brain malware — but then again, in a science-fictional future, isn’t it almost guaranteed that the government would mandate the inclusion of brain-hacking software in the operating system itself?
Seriously, for less than the cost of a weekend vacation you can hack into a human brain.
I’m sure everything will be just fine.
I’m also sure the bunnies in my head know how to make the perfect martini.