Implanted Medical Devices: Saving Our Lives, Tempting Computer Hackers
Medical devices like pacemakers and insulin pumps will save many lives, but they also represent an opportunity to computer hackers who would use the Internet to cause havoc.
Marc Goodman is focused on the disruptive impact of advancing technologies on security, business, and international affairs. He has spent a career in law enforcement and technology. He was appointed futurist-in-residence with the FBI, worked as a senior adviser to Interpol, and served as a street police officer. As the founder of the Future Crimes Institute and the Chair for Policy, Law, and Ethics at Silicon Valley's Singularity University, he continues to investigate the intriguing and often terrifying intersection of science and security, uncovering nascent threats and combating the darker sides of technology.
Marc Goodman: A subset of the Internet of things is a whole category of medical devices. We have wearables, things like the Fitbit. We have embeddables. We have implantables. Things like diabetic pumps for example. Internet enabled defibrillators implanted in our chests. So implantable defibrillators, pacemakers and the like. We have brain-computer interface. And now we’re even creating pills that are Internet enabled so that you can swallow a pill and it goes into your stomach. The pill’s computer is powered by your stomach acid, and it can control the release of medicine: how much medicine is released over a time. So we are slowly but surely becoming cyborgs. I know it sounds like science fiction but if you think about it, most people are walking around with their cell phone in their pocket or in their hand 24/7. When people go to sleep they put it on their nightstand. So slowly but surely computers are replacing our own cognitive abilities to an extent. When I was younger I used to know by memory the phone numbers of all of my friends because there were no cell phones with all these little address books.
Today we just automatically dump that data into our cell phone and just call it up on demand. The same with our address book and the like. So the cell phone, though currently outside of our body, means that’s kind of the first step towards us theoretically becoming cyborgs. The next step of course will be implanting these devices into us. There are people, several researchers including one out of Cambridge in the UK that have implanted RFID chips underneath their skin for years. These people are called body modders and they will go out there and use those RFID chips to open up the security door in their office place, to pay for goods and services. So you can actually do that now. So there’s a whole movement of people who are quite interested.
It’s sort of underground these days. If you – it’s sort of the next generation of piercing. There’s a whole community around piercing and tattooing. And the next generation of that is to implant these computer devices in our skin, under our skin that give us new forms of senses. For example magnets. A whole movement of people put magnets under their skin and they have now created a sixth sense that the rest of us don’t have which is that they can actually explore magnetism in our environment. So for the more computers that we put in there’s no special exemption for medical devices that makes them unhackable. In fact medical devices are entirely hackable.
Going back four or five years the Medtronic pacemaker, the automatic defibrillator was proven by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to be hackable, where remotely you could go ahead and deliver a shock to somebody's heart — to somebody’s perfectly functioning heart. A shock that would cause a well-functioning heart to go into cardiac arrest. The Defcon and Black Cat conferences are hacker conferences in Las Vegas. We’ve had hackers on stage exploit these devices. One famously done with a Bluetooth, basically a Bluetooth extender that could allow somebody from a distance of a few hundred feet find people who had diabetic pumps, right. These are pumps inside their bodies that feed insulin on a very controlled basis into the human body. And with this Bluetooth you could take a few weeks of insulin and release it in an hour causing somebody to go into a diabetic coma and therefore death.
So these tools are clearly going to save hundreds of thousands of lives. There are hundreds of thousands of implantable medical devices in human beings in the United States and around the world today. That number is going to grow exponentially as they become more powerful. Brain computer, interface computers such as cochlear implants are growing.
In the old days if you were hearing impaired they would kind of create a hearing aid that you’d wear inside your ear. Now they can actually attach a device directly to your skull and wire into your auditory nerve directly into your brain. So there is an interface between a computer on your body and your brain via the auditory nerve. And it’s controlled again via Bluetooth. So think about this. Bluetooth hacks are incredibly easy to carry out. There are many, many known exploits. You can download apps that will do Bluetooth exploits. And so if somebody is wearing this type of hearing aid I could subvert that. I could make sounds and noise into their auditory nerve via hack that nobody else would hear. I could make them think that they’re going crazy, right. You can do all different types of terrible things.
And you may be thinking why would somebody do this? Only a truly sick person would do this. And I’m sad to say there are some people like that in this world that would do that. Go back five or six years to a case that I cite in the book from the National Epilepsy Foundation. For people who may not be aware, epileptics have to guard themselves against sudden bright flashing lights that can cause them to go into grand mal seizures. And somebody five or six years ago hacked the National Epilepsy Foundation website and so when epileptics went to their website for information rather than seeing the Epilepsy Foundation’s web page what they saw was a bunch of flash code blinking, blinking, blinking really fast in their eyes. And several cases of grand mal seizures were recorded as a result of that hack. So unfortunately there are some people in this world who do things like that and harm others for no other reason than for the kicks of it all.
Medical devices like pacemakers and insulin pumps will save many lives, but they also represent an opportunity to computer hackers who would use the Internet to cause havoc. Former futurist-in-residence at the FBI, Marc Goodman says it is easy to take for granted how connected we've already become to the Internet. Most American adults keep their phones within arm's reach all day, and keep their devices on their nightstand while they sleep — and forget about actually remembering people's phone numbers. That is a job we have outsourced to machines.
In this sense, says Goodman, we are already cyborgs. But digital devices connected to the Internet will continue to move inside our bodies, just as pacemakers and insulin pumps have. In his interview, Goodman discusses cases of computer hackers taking advantage of these devices' connectivity to show how vulnerable we could soon become to their potentially destructive wishes. In one case, a hacker demonstrated he could release several weeks of insulin into a diabetic's body, certain to cause a diabetic coma and death. In another, hackers induced epileptic seizures by hacking the Epilepsy Foundation's webpage.
At bottom is the Internet of Things, a increasingly connected web of devices that will make our lives simpler and more efficient, but this network will also make us vulnerable in ways that are difficult to detect, let alone prevent. Goodman's message is not that we need to constantly fear a new world of better health and convenience, but that we need to be aware of technology's pitfalls in life.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Scientists discover surviving viruses in 15,000-year-old glacier ice on the Tibetan Plateau in China.
Researchers have found 15,000-year-old viruses in ice samples taken from the Tibetan Plateau in China, the majority of which are unlike any of the viruses currently known to science. The study, published in the journal Microbiome, could help scientists understand virus evolution and climate change.
Two ice cores were collected in 2015 at extremely high altitudes — above 22,000 feet — from the Guliya ice cap in western China.
Lead author Zhi-Ping Zhong, a researcher at the Ohio State University's Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, explained that the glaciers they examined were formed over a long period of time, collecting dust and gases as well as the viruses. "The glaciers in western China are not well-studied, and our goal is to use this information to reflect past environments," he said. "And viruses are a part of those environments."
Poring over the samples, the scientists identified 33 viral genomes, 28 of which are novel and have not been described previously. Four of the known viruses infect bacteria.
Watch a film on the ice core extraction in the Guliya glacier in 2015 -
Co-author Matthew Sullivan, professor of microbiology at Ohio State, said that these viruses were made for extreme conditions. "These viruses have signatures of genes that help them infect cells in cold environments — just surreal genetic signatures for how a virus is able to survive in extreme conditions," he stated.
The ultra-clean method developed by the scientists to decontaminate the cores to study the microbes inside can be applied to samples taken from other harsh settings, like Mars or the moon. The technique involves stripping away the core's outer layer of ice. Then, the core is cleaned with alcohol and water.
Dangerous viruses in the ice?
Is it dangerous to dig up ancient viruses? Could they infect humans? Sullivan told Gizmodo that the viruses were made inactive by the "chemistry of nucleic acids extraction."
So, there's no need to worry this time. However, some researchers believe that the thawing of permafrost due to climate change could eventually release some viruses that might infect humans.
The eastern inner core located beneath Indonesia's Banda Sea is growing faster than the western side beneath Brazil.
More than 5,000 kilometres beneath us, Earth's solid metal inner core wasn't discovered until 1936.
Almost a century later, we're still struggling to answer basic questions about when and how it first formed.
These aren't easy puzzles to solve. We can't directly sample the inner core, so the key to unravelling its mysteries lies in collaboration between seismologists, who indirectly sample it with seismic waves, geodynamicists, who create models of its dynamics, and mineral physicists, who study the behaviour of iron alloys at high pressures and temperatures.
Combining these disciplines, scientists have delivered an important clue about what's happening miles beneath our feet. In a new study, they reveal how Earth's inner core is growing faster on one side than the other, which could help explain how old the inner core is, and the intriguing history of Earth's magnetic field.
Earth's core was formed very early in our planet's 4.5 billion-year history, within the first 200 million years. Gravity pulled the heavier iron to the centre of the young planet, leaving the rocky, silicate minerals to make up the mantle and crust.
Earth's formation captured a lot of heat within the planet. The loss of this heat, and heating by ongoing radioactive decay, have since driven our planet's evolution. Heat loss in Earth's interior drives the vigorous flow in the liquid iron outer core, which creates Earth's magnetic field. Meanwhile, cooling within Earth's deep interior helps power plate tectonics, which shape the surface of our planet.
As Earth cooled over time, the temperature at the centre of the planet eventually dropped below the melting point of iron at extreme pressures, and the inner core started to crystallise. Today, the inner core continues to grow at roughly 1mm in radius each year, which equates to the solidification of 8,000 tonnes of molten iron every second. In billions of years, this cooling will eventually lead to the whole core becoming solid, leaving Earth without its protective magnetic field.
One might assume that this solidification creates a homogeneous solid sphere, but this isn't the case. In the 1990s, scientists realised that the speed of seismic waves travelling through the inner core varied unexpectedly. This suggested that something asymmetrical was happening in the inner core.
Specifically, the eastern and western halves of the inner core showed different seismic wavespeed variations. The eastern part of the inner core is beneath Asia, the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean, and the west lies under the Americas, the Atlantic Ocean and the eastern Pacific.
Sanne Cottaar, Author provided
The new study probed this mystery, using new seismic observations combined with geodynamic modelling and estimates of how iron alloys behave at high pressure. They found that the eastern inner core located beneath Indonesia's Banda Sea is growing faster than the western side beneath Brazil.
You can think of this uneven growth as like trying to make ice cream in a freezer that's only working on one side: ice crystals form only on the side of the ice cream where the cooling is effective. In the Earth, the uneven growth is caused by the rest of the planet sucking heat more quickly from some parts of the inner core than others.
But unlike the ice cream, the solid inner core is subject to gravitational forces which distribute the new growth evenly through a process of creeping interior flow, which maintains the inner core's spherical shape. This means that Earth is in no danger of tipping, though this uneven growth does get recorded in the seismic wavespeeds in our planet's inner core.
Dating the core
So does this approach help us understand how old the inner core might be? When the researchers matched their seismic observations with their flow models, they found that it's likely that the inner core – at the centre of the entire core which formed much earlier – is between 500 million and 1,500 million years old.
The study reports that the younger end of this age range is the better match, although the older end matches an estimate made by measuring changes in the strength of Earth's magnetic field. Whichever number turns out to be correct, it's clear that the inner core is a relative youngster, somewhere between a ninth and a third as old as Earth itself.
This new work presents a powerful new model of the inner core. However, a number of physical assumptions the authors made would have to be true for this to be correct. For example, the model only works if the inner core consists of one specific crystalline phase of iron, about which there is some uncertainty.
And does our uneven inner core make the Earth unusual? It turns out that many planetary bodies have two halves which are somehow different to each other. On Mars, the surface of the northern half is lower-lying while the southern half is more mountainous. The Moon's near-side crust is chemically different to the far-side one. On Mercury and Jupiter it's not the surface which is uneven but the magnetic field, which doesn't form a mirror image between north and south.
So while the causes for all of these asymmetries vary, Earth appears to be in good company as a slightly asymmetrical planet in a solar system of lopsided celestial bodies.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
In ancient Greece, the Olympics were never solely about the athletes themselves.
Because of a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases, the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2021 Olympics will unfold in a stadium absent the eyes, ears and voices of a once-anticipated 68,000 ticket holders from around the world.
Events during the intervening days will likewise occur in silent arenas missing the hundreds of thousands of spectators who paid US$815 million for their now-useless tickets.
After 48 years teaching classics, I can't help but wonder what the Greeks – who invented the Games nearly 3,000 years ago, in 776 B.C. – would make of such a ghostly version of their Olympic festival.
In many ways, they'd view the prospect as absurd.
In ancient Greece, the Olympics were never solely about the athletes themselves; instead, the heart and soul of the festival was the experience shared by all who attended. Every four years, athletes and spectators traveled from far-flung corners of the Greek-speaking world to Olympia, lured by a longing for contact with their compatriots and their gods.
In the shadow of dreams
For the Greeks, during five days in the late-summer heat, two worlds miraculously merged at Olympia: the domain of everyday life, with its human limits, and a supernatural sphere from the days superior beings, gods and heroes populated Earth.
Greek athletics, like today's, plunged participants into performances that pushed the envelope of human ability to its breaking point. But to the Greeks, the cauldron of competition could trigger revelations in which ordinary mortals might briefly intermingle with the extraordinary immortals.
The poet Pindar, famous for the victory songs he composed for winners at Olympia, captured this sort of transcendent moment when he wrote, “Humans are creatures of a day. But what is humankind? What is it not? A human is just the shadow of a dream – but when a flash of light from Zeus comes down, a shining light falls on humans and their lifetime can be sweet as honey."
However, these epiphanies could occur only if witnesses were physically present to immerse themselves – and share in – the spine-tingling flirtation with the divine.
Simply put, Greek athletics and religious experience were inseparable.
At Olympia, both athletes and spectators were making a pilgrimage to a sacred place. A modern Olympics can legitimately take place in any city selected by the International Olympic Committee. But the ancient games could occur in only one location in western Greece. The most profoundly moving events didn't even occur in the stadium that accommodated 40,000 or in the wrestling and boxing arenas.
Instead, they took place in a grove called the Althis, where Hercules is said to have first erected an altar, sacrificed oxen to Zeus and planted a wild olive tree. Easily half the events during the festival engrossed spectators not in feats like discus, javelin, long jump, foot race and wrestling, but in feasts where animals were sacrificed to gods in heaven and long-dead heroes whose spirits still lingered.
On the evening of the second day, thousands gathered in the Althis to reenact the funeral rites of Pelops, a human hero who once raced a chariot to win a local chief's daughter. But the climactic sacrifice was on the morning of the third day at the Great Altar of Zeus, a mound of plastered ashes from previous sacrifices that stood 22 feet tall and 125 feet around. In a ritual called the hecatomb, 100 bulls were slaughtered and their thigh bones, wrapped in fat, burned atop the altar so that the rising smoke and aroma would reach the sky where Zeus could savor it.
No doubt many a spectator shivered at the thought of Zeus hovering above them, smiling and remembering Hercules' first sacrifice.
Just a few yards from the Great Altar another, more visual encounter with the god awaited. In the Temple of Zeus, which was erected around 468 to 456 B.C., stood a colossal image, 40 feet high, of the god on a throne, his skin carved from ivory and his clothing made of gold. In one hand he held the elusive goddess of victory, Nike, and in the other a staff on which his sacred bird, the eagle, perched. The towering statue was reflected in a shimmering pool of olive oil surrounding it.
During events, the athletes performed in the nude, imitating heroic figures like Hercules, Theseus or Achilles, who all crossed the dividing line between human and superhuman and were usually represented nude in painting and sculpture.
The athletes' nudity declared to spectators that in this holy place, contestants hoped to reenact, in the ritual of sport, the shudder of contact with divinity. In the Althis stood a forest of hundreds of nude statues of men and boys, all previous victors whose images set the bar for aspiring newcomers.
“There are a lot of truly marvelous things one can see and hear about in Greece," the Greek travel writer Pausanias noted in the second century B.C., “but there is something unique about how the divine is encountered at … the games at Olympia."
Communion and community
The Greeks lived in roughly 1,500 to 2,000 small-scale states scattered across the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.
Since sea travel in summertime was the only viable way to cross this fragile geographical web, the Olympics might entice a Greek living in Southern Europe and another residing in modern-day Ukraine to interact briefly in a festival celebrating not only Zeus and Heracles but also the Hellenic language and culture that produced them.
Besides athletes, poets, philosophers and orators came to perform before crowds that included politicians and businessmen, with everyone communing in an “oceanic feeling" of what it meant to be momentarily united as Greeks.
Now, there's no way we could explain the miracle of TV to the Greeks and how its electronic eye recruits millions of spectators to the modern games by proxy. But visitors to Olympia engaged in a distinct type of spectating.
The ordinary Greek word for someone who observes – “theatês" – connects not only to “theater" but also to “theôria," a special kind of seeing that requires a journey from home to a place where something wondrous unfolds. Theôria opens a door into the sacred, whether it's visiting an oracle or participating in a religious cult.
Attending an athletic-religious festival like the Olympics transformed an ordinary spectator, a theatês, into a theôros – a witness observing the sacred, an ambassador reporting home the wonders observed abroad.
It's hard to imagine TV images from Tokyo achieving similar ends.
No matter how many world records are broken and unprecedented feats accomplished at the 2020 games, the empty arenas will attract no gods or genuine heroes: The Tokyo games are even less enchanted than previous modern games.
But while medal counts will confer fleeting glory on some nations and disappointing shame on others, perhaps a dramatic moment or two might unite athletes and TV viewers in an oceanic feeling of what it means to be “kosmopolitai," citizens of the world, celebrants of the wonder of what it means to be human – and perhaps, briefly, superhuman as well.
The ancient Greeks wouldn't recognize some aspects of the modern Olympics.
Vincent Farenga, Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences