Hacking Medical Devices

Johnson & Johnson recently disclosed that one if its insulin pumps might be subject to hacking.   This follows assertions about pacemakers and implanted defibrillators might also be subject to attack.  No doubt some wireless medical devices will have security vulnerabilities with at least software if not hardware attack vectors.

The motives for attack are perhaps equally important in any case. Hacking a fleet of cars can have widespread visibility and will be associated with a different set of motives than a personal attack via a medical device.  However, murder or assassination are potential uses for these types of flaws.

“No instances of medical-device hacking have been disclosed.” according to the related WSJ article. Of course, when a diabetic dies of an insulin excess or deficit, murder by hacking might not be on the post mortum evaluation list.  The abuses here are (hopefully) rare, but the lack of disclosure does not imply the lack of a successful attack.

Human Germ-line Modification Hiatus Proposed (too late?)

Nobel laureates David Baltimore and Paul Berg have recommended pausing active modification of the human germ-line cells until experts can convene a conference to consider the implications of this activity.  (WSJ 4/9/2015 “Let’s Hit Pause Before Altering Humankind”)   They point out that this parallel’s a similar action in 1975 when the emergence of recombinant DNA technology triggered a conference on that topic.

This is a bit afield from IEEE’s domain of affairs, but quite relevant to the Society on Social Implications of Technology dialogs. Let me outline key concepts they put forward to help build a common vocabulary, and then focus on parallel’s in IEEE’s areas of work.

They point out the advent of a bio-tech (CRISPER/Cas9) that simplifies the modification of germ-line DNA alterations that are “quite precise with no undesired changes in the genome.” They point out that modifications can be within an individual without inheritability (somatic cell alteration.) They can be applied to germ-cells, affecting all future generations from that line either to eliminate a defect (therapeutic germ-line alteration.) Although they point out that similar benefits for the next generation may be attainable via embryo-selection methodology.  Finally there is the potential for “voluntary germ-line alteration”, to increase traits parents currently consider desirable. They point out that “we often do not know well enough the total range of consequences of a given gene alteration, potentially creating unexpected physiological alterations that would extend down through generations to come.” (A.k.a. the law of unintended consequences.)  Ergo they recommend a moratorium and conference to address the implications involved.

This is an excellent example parallel to IEEE’s Code of Ethics which includes “to improve the understanding of technology; its appropriate application, and potential consequences.” Actually, it goes one step further in taking action to manage potential consequences before they are fully realized.

If we look at the fields where IEEE’s technologists are engaged (with computing, robotics and bio-medical systems included, there are few areas we don’t touch), there are some interesting examples.  There is some discussion (although no suggested moratoriums) in areas like self-driving or remotely controllable cars, some of these fields are outgrowths of simple ‘improvements’, such as automatic breaking systems or parallel parking.  Others are unintended consequences of remote monitoring services.

Observation #1: we (technologists, our employers, and indirectly stockholders and customers) may not be applying sufficient diligence in considering potential consequences.  In part we may not be providing the time and incentives for quality engineering of quality products. A quality product should not be subject to hacking that can affect public safety and health for example.

Observation #2: The bio-genetics world is miles ahead of our technology in their limited understanding of what may result from their work.  For example, the concept of emerging artificial intelligence and it’s impact is getting coverage in science fiction, and even some awareness in research and industry, but we have very little insight on the potential consequences of passing over some nebulous lines in paths that lead towards intelligent and./or conscious systems.

What other areas do you see that might warrant some serious consideration before we proceed?

[April 24th, Chinese researchers indicate they have completed a trial of this concept, with some ‘off target’ effects.]

Private Cameras vs State Cameras

A recent opinion piece in Technology and Society by Jay Stanley (ACLU) questions the impact of Omnipresent Cameras — every cell phone is a video device, potentially streaming to the net live. Drones, private and government have their eyes open. Streets are monitored at traffic lights (and elsewhere) by government cameras as are many buildings via private cameras. The next article by Steve Mann talks about the “black bubbles” that are used to obscure cameras — and includes delightful images of Steve and friends with similar bubbles on their heads.  Steve points to lighting devices that incorporate cameras that can recognize faces and read license plates Jay points out that today we expect significant events in the public space to be recorded. The aftermath of the Ferguson shooting was captured by a cell phone camera, but the police car recordings (if any) have not been released.

All of this leads to  cultural questions  on the appropriate expectations of privacy, possible restrictions on public recording of government activities (such as police at a traffic stop, or the evolution of a demonstration in the streets of (pick your favorite city). It does not take much to demonstrate that eye witnesses are poor recorders of events (see Dan Simmons research on selective attention) — this makes the availability of “recorded” evidence quite useful. With more cameras on cars (backup cameras), on person (Glass), on buildings, on planes/drones, light-bulbs, and yes-the increasing image quality of the cameras that turn on/off devices in the bathroom (Steve points out these are up to  1024 pixels) the expectations of privacy “in public” are diminishing, and the potential for photographic evidence are increasing. Jay suggests that both police and the folks they interact with act differently when officers are equipped with body cameras.

So is this good?  What ethical issues, or even rules of evidence apply? How does it vary from culture to culture?

What’s New in DNA – What Does It Mean?

Ok, this one took me by surprise.  “Man-made DNA“, the headlines don’t seem that shocking.  But then I looked a bit inside.  The folks here are not just doing genetic engineering, but actually adding new base pairs to the DNA alphabet.

It’s not your grandmother’s DNA! … she had four base pairs with the ability to create twenty amino acids — all of which is a shared organic chemistry with every other living thing on earth (and I’d assumed, until today, other “goldilocks” planets.)  I recently competed the free Udacity course, sponsored by 23-and-Me, on how the … what do we call them now … “legacy” DNA pairs… work.  Researchers at Scripts Institute in San Diego have managed to find two additional molecules for a new base pair set, that “works” in DNA. They can insert them into bacteria, the bacteria reproduce, and these pairs get copied just like the legacy pairs.  This expands the range of amino acids that can be produced to one hundred and seventy two — that’s one hundred and fifty two more building blocks to play with in building organisms.  Depending on how “likely” these two additional bases are in a given planetary chemistry set, this means we might find DNA based life-forms that simply don’t use the same base pairs that we use.

So what? That’s the big question in my mind.  Our ability to understand the translation of base pairs into proteins into amino acids into cellular components into cells into life forms is somewhat limited at this point.  Give a genetics wizard a new mutation and ask what impact it will have and she won’t have a clue.  Needless to say, give our wizards one hundred and fifty two new building blocks and they will be clueless.  If some of these do good things, we can expect some of them to do bad things — although it is likely that most will do nothing at all.

It took four and one half billion years of playing with the chemistry set on Earth to come up with the thousands of species we have, and thousands of extinct species — presumably guided by the “invisible hand” of evolution.  No doubt we can incorporporate these additions to our “kit” in a tenth of that time (i.e. five hundred million years.) — (are we there yet?) … with a bit more carefully managed range of speciation and extinction.  It’s just the first million years I worry about.

Humans have not demonstrated a great deal of global responsibility in dealing with today’s challenges — governments, corporations, institutions and individuals tend to operate with short-term, self-serving agenda’s — even when they are presented with fairly solid evidence that their courses of action are harmful.  The new Cosmos series on TV does an excellent job of demonstrating that in a recent sequence on the dating of the universe (the transition of uranium into lead) and the closely related battle to stop poisoning the planet with lead in gasoline.  When we move forward into an arena where we have limited or no visibility we need to tread very carefully, at least.

How do you see this next opportunity in evolution?