Hacking Humanity: Human Augmentation on the Horizon

If you could become the bionic man or Robocop, would you graft biomechanical interfaces into your body? Here's an interview with two Def Con 20 presenters who believe we are indeed on the cusp of hacking humanity and human augmentation.

We all know about Dick Cheney's pacemaker, people who have insulin pumps, DARPA's full body exoskeleton, and the controversy surrounding the Olympic "Blade Runner's" artificial legs as if he were The Six Million Dollar Man. Third year medical students and hacker enthusiasts Christian "Quaddi" Dameff and Jeff "R3plicant" Tully presented Hacking Humanity: Human Augmentation and You at Def Con 20. They said, "Human augmentation is no longer constrained to the world of speculative fiction and vice-presidential medicine; biomechanical interfaces are an exploding area of active research, development, and implementation. And they're here to stay."

I had an opportunity to sit down with Quaddi and R3plicant to discuss the future of human augmentation as well as how we will eventually reach the reality of The Bionic Woman and Robocop.

R3plicant said, "There is an incredible explosion of medical devices and electronic infrastructure that has proceeded at a pace that some people might consider to be excessive. Too often in the medical field, they are focusing on patient care at the expense of security." That is true as we've seen in the last couple years such as at Def Con 16 when researchers astounded the world by showing "How to turn off someone's pacemaker via remote control" [PDF]. At Black Hat USA 2011, a security researcher and diabetic presented "Hacking Medical Devices for Fun and Insulin: Breaking the Human SCADA System."

R3plicant added, "We are at a cusp, a changing point in humanity, where we have to be asking ourselves some very important questions. The logical next step is to graft it into your body. There are social questions to ask." Not everyone will be so quick to line up for human augmentation, but they found the Def Con crowd of hackers to be very much in favor of hacking humanity. In fact, that might spark a revolution that will change people's mind about how acceptable it is to add biomechanical interfaces. Despite the social questions, R3plicant mentioned how fast we were to jump on the new technology bandwagon in the past. "How quickly did everyone get a cell phone, or laptop? Now everyone is reliant on them."

Quaddi explained, "We won't wake up with cyborg overlords. It will bleed out from the medical field such as DARPA's exoskeleton to help wounded veterans. Devices are more efficient than what our bodies are." This also sparked a big debate about whether or not double amputee Oscar Pistorius could compete in the Olympics; people asked if his artificial legs made him a faster runner. If in the future these medical technologically advanced pieces of equipment were decided to give a person an edge, the "healthy may want a leg that is more proficient. Competition will drive this augmentation, being able to compete with a person who has a mod. You may make that choice if it is needed to compete." He pointed toward Lasik eye surgery being common place now, but it too is a human augmentation to be better, a lifestyle change by choice.

It's common in sports for athletes to get an edge by doping it, by using extra steroids. In the future, athletes may decide they could be more efficient with artificial or modded limbs. From the blind to the deaf, we more frequency see how medical science is allowing people to regain function to such a great degree. They suggested that eventually biomechanical interfaces may advance to the point of wiping out disease.

Right now we commonly see augmentation in less drastic ways. For example, Adderall doesn't fix the problem, but offers temporary fixes for ADHD symptoms. Pharmaceutical companies make drugs to make your IQ jump or for "mood" enhancement such the biggest selling drug of all time, Viagra. "It's augmentation by messing with neurochemistry. In the next 10 or 15 years, gene therapy will be really big for treating really bad diseases that we don't have a cure for," stated R3plicant.

Quaddi said the day will come when you will be "hacking your own source code. You could write your own source code. Perhaps at Def Con where there is the hacker mindset, engineering and injecting, there might be DIY plasma kits." The way some hackers spend time in the hardware hacking village, there might be a hacking human augmentation village. He added, "Genetic hacking is no longer gene therapy; it's not therapy, it's the future."

They talked in tag team about choices such as if you were about to die and needed brain surgery. If one surgeon is world-renowned yet his percentage of successful surgeries is less than that of a surgeon with steadier robotic hands, and your life is on the line, would you choose the human with some trembling in his hands or the precision delivered by robotic hands?

Quaddi and R3plicant are introducing the idea that people in medicine need to work closely with people in security and hacking. "We need to make sure this human augmentation and modded bodies happen in a responsible way." Right now neither doctors nor patients understand firmware updates. "Medical people are ignorant about critical medical infrastructure" and there is not much communication about the subject. "The FDA is overloaded and influenced by legislation. Yet the attack surfaces are exploding and will continue to explode. There will be people walking around with a zero-day in a terminal application which means a person could die due to poor security."

This is why the guys reached out to the expertise of hackers and security-minded people at Def Con. "They have a do-it-yourself attitude. There is really cool stuff on the horizon, but we really have to be careful to fully understand the risks and consequences before you put a chip in your arm."

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