One of the most prominent features of the future is the technology to link the world with the human mind. The applications of what I like to call Direct Neural Link technologies are as varied as they are spectacular. Applications like altering, sharing and cataloging memories like Facebook photos, downloading information like “how to perform a life-saving surgery” or “preform the piano” directly into your brain, remote controlling a surrogate body on the opposite side of the globe, reforming the worst members of our society, allow amputees to become whole again through cybernetics and even stimulate nerves to literally make the lame walk and the blind see. The futurists and transhumanists paint a future with Direct Neural Link tech as a paradise to rival that of Roddenberry for the price of a cybernetic implant.

But surprisingly, very few authors or futurists take five minutes to ask the basic question, What happens when something goes wrong?

I remember a discussion with one such person about a device he called a dial-a-mood that can put you in a better mood with a push of a button. I asked him, “what is to stop some desperate hacker from hacking a rich person's dial-a-mood and making the rich snob fall desperately in love with them so the hacker can take their money?” All he said was, “would make an interesting story.”

Then recently I was reading Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre (check it out it’s good) Where It briefly talked about a guy who hacked his hands so he could play the piano and how an exosuit could help the paralyzed or infirmed only to be asked, and I quote, “Isn’t it possible for someone to hack that suit once you put it on, force you to pick up your perfectly legal assault rifle, and walk down the street to the local preschool?“

And those are just scratching the surface for how DNL tech can be abused. Why hack through bank security in a robbery when you could just hack the bank manager? Why smuggle weapons to hijack a plane when you could just hijack the pilot? What is to stop some jealous former lover from hacking your spouse's nervous system? How can a murderer be brought to justice when they controlled an innocent person to keep their hands clean? How could crimes even be investigated when you could just make someone destroy evidence and erase any memories of the incident? How could governments survive if democratically elected officials could be turned into some dictators puppet on a string? How could the world survive when any nihilist with a charged lab top can make any or all world leaders push the big red button with a couple of keystrokes?

Any of these possibilities are horrifying on their own, but the problem is DNL tech in ANY of its forms opens Pandora’s box on ALL of them. The Skynet Contingency has already made us question whether or not it is wise or even SAFE to research A.I. But we seem hesitant to ask the same hard pointed questions of DNL tech.

So here is the billion-dollar question: What laws rules and regulations would be put in place to try and mitigate all the dangers of Direct Neural Link technologies represent?

(Editing notes: I did want to know if this technology would be made illegal, but Henry Taylor rightly pointed out, "Any human process can be hacked through social engineering. So if we follow the logic of making DNL illegal to its logical conclusion, we would have to make every aspect of human civilization illegal and just move back into the caves." So I am curious how they would be regulated, rather than flat out outlawed)

  • $\begingroup$ If it's a billion dollar question, doesn't that make it a very broad opinion based question? $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Jul 16 '20 at 18:58
  • $\begingroup$ I started to say that any computer system can be hacked, yet computers are not illegal. But the truth is that computer's aren't even necessary. Any human process can be hacked through social engineering. So if we follow the logic of making DNL illegal to its logical conclusion, we would have to make every aspect of human civilization illegal and just move back into the caves. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jul 16 '20 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ Funny, I've read a LOT of books that deal specifically with "when things went wrong." I'm not sure how you missed them. And most John Le Carre spy thrillers involve Person X being forced to do odious Action Y...without even the need to muck about with neural links. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jul 16 '20 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ Neuroprosthetics is a real thing in the real world. (And I don't see what specific legal issues this tech introduces over plain old pacemakers, for example.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 16 '20 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ I like the basis of the question, but it needs work on account of being too broad at the moment - and that it would tend to generate opinion-based answers rather than fact-based ones. Regulation would almost certainly follow a timeline of minimal => maximal as whatever regs are established are circumvented, so it'd be a sort of arms race like so many areas of law and order. A snapshot of your society, the political climate might help narrow the answer. Rival-nation hackers or even rival-manufacturer hackers privy to the override codes, start to make it all very story based. Tough one. $\endgroup$ – A Rogue Ant. Jul 16 '20 at 22:46

I would put this in a comment but it is too long.

I think you need to be more specific about "Direct Neural Link" technology. It seems there are many levels of direct neural interaction. As it is, I don't think this question is framed properly, or perhaps not sufficiently elaborated.

  1. Sending neural impulses to control something (i.e. a prosthetic arm)
  2. Sending sensations to the brain (i.e. simulating touch in a prosthetic arm)
  3. Sending neural impulses to the body via way of a brain-interface (i.e. overriding a body)
  4. Memory manipulation
  5. Thought manipulation
  6. Personality re-writes

Since the technology doesn't exist yet, we can only speculate the biological and technological divide between each of these (i.e. how far is the gap between sending touch impulses to the brain versus sending things to the brain to manipulate the body, thoughts, or memories?).

For example, memory manipulation could be thought of as read/writing the brain. But a brain, unlike a computer, has no software independent of the hardware. It's all hardware. So read/writing the brain should be more like re-wiring the brain which seems like it would be synonymous with long-term thought manipulation which would be more accurately described as a personality rewrite.

Then again, since we don't know, they might not since since people forget stuff they've experienced but that doesn't change the way they act. Are your personality and memories just manifestations of the same thing but at different layers in your brain? Or are they distinct? You might have to make up these rules in your world to properly answer your questions about legality.

And this might be completely distinct from short-term injection of thoughts which, presumably is not re-wiring the brain but firing specific impulses through pre-existing connections. But this seems a bit similar to sending sensations to the brain.

Complete control over sensations sent to the brain would culminate in simulated reality, but it might not lead naturally to memory or though manipulation as long as you don't count brainwashing over long periods of time (or maybe short periods of time if experiences can be sped up relative to real time).

Knowing that there is very useful lower hanging fruit but more dangerous higher hanging fruit but not knowing the gap between them may be a sufficient argument to conclude that it would not stop all research because you might argue against memory, body, or though manipulation, but how are you going to argue against prosthetic arms? You would need to be extremely paranoid or have prior knowledge or examples about just how small the gap is to ban it all outright.

  • $\begingroup$ Alright thank you for such a succinct answer, meaning that this tech ( in ALL its forms would not be illegal. I think I am going to pivot the question since outlawing it seems to be a thorough resounding no. $\endgroup$ – Jacob Badger Jul 16 '20 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ Neuroprosthetics is a real thing. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 16 '20 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ @JacobBadger I think so. I've not heard of an example in fiction where something was outright banned due to the slippery slope argument without prior knowledge or experience about just how slippery the slope is. For example, we have computers and neural networks, but we don't know where it might lead so it might seem reasonable right now to have them around because they are super useful. But if we did know or have a historical example, we might be hysterically burning computers. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 16 '20 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ If levels in the technology were easily delineated you could much more easily ban things just before they became dangerous. But as far as brain-stuff goes, we don't know and for all we know one thing could very easily lead to the other or be practically the same thing in some cases. The catch is that you need to reach the line before you know where it can be drawn which means you might need to make up stuff to fill in the unknown about how the brain work so you can make laws for your world. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 16 '20 at 19:36

Existing laws already cover DNL hacking

When worldbuilding, it's helpful to start with the real world and see if any similar situations already exist. Your question basically boils down to this: there's a powerful technology that gives people control of other people's bodies over the internet. That obviously isn't a common thing now. But there are huge numbers of critical systems that are already being controlled over the internet, and you'd better believe that they are targets of hackers. One of the most high-profile attacks was the successful destruction of part of Iran's nuclear research program. The attack used a worm called Stuxnet to cause an explosion: Stuxnet diagram

You're focused on the legal aspects of this technology. It's worth noting that the most important aspects of an effective cybersecurity program involve stopping attacks before they ever happen. This is true in the real world and in the DNL scenario you're building.

OK, now on to the legal stuff. There are several laws that already outlaw hacking and it's unclear if you'd even need another law to protect against DNL attacks. Here's a quick summary of existing US laws. The most important is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which carries sentences of years in prison for hacking into a computer system. CFAA wasn't written with your specific situation in mind, but it still applies. And there are legal precedents (e.g. Katko v. Briney) that say you can be held liable for shooting somebody even if you are nowhere near the firearm at the time of the shooting. So people who hack into other people's bodies and force them to engage in crimes will be guilty of the actual crime (e.g. murder) and they'll be in violation of CFAA (or similar laws).


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