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Beyond Big Brother: SANE (Security Assurance through Neural Engineering)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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From: Dr. Parsons, Chief, Neuroengineering Research, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

To: Dr. O’Brien, Director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Re: New Initiative for Assuring National Security

Classification: Super Secret

Dr. O’Brien:

I would like to propose a major new research initiative, which could yield benefits for our nation—not to mention positive publicity for Darpa–greater than those stemming from any previous agency projects, even the Internet.

The public has reacted with admirable equanimity to recent media disclosures about domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. Surveys show that a majority of American voters do not object to such surveillance. Ironically, Democrats, who traditionally have objected to vigorous U.S. security programs, seem to be especially supportive of NSA efforts!

Clearly, most Americans have the wisdom to recognize that if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear. Their right to privacy and freedom from government intrusion is a small price to pay for protection from the many actual and potential threats facing our nation.

Of course, surveillance alone–even when supplemented by new techniques made possible by advances in unpiloted aerial vehicles–is an extremely inefficient method of achieving security. Hence I propose that Darpa initiate research on a far more effective, even fail-safe security system: Security Assurance through Neural Engineering, or SANE. (I must give credit to one of my grant officers, Dr. Syme, for conceiving this program appellation, which of course is subject to your approval.)

The central component of SANE is a multi-functional implantable neural device, the Sanity Module (again, Dr. Syme’s coinage). The Sanity Module will be equipped with artificial dendrites and axons–perhaps based on emerging optogenetic technology–that receive signals from and transmit them to neural tissue. The module will include a chip for processing and storing information as well as a radio receiver/transmitter and GPS device.

The module will record basic information about its host’s activities, including all movements and interactions with other persons. Although research on how the brain encodes information is proceeding slowly, breakthroughs should eventually make it possible for the Sanity Module to detect inappropriate or potentially inappropriate memories, emotions, perceptions and intentions in the host.

One final capability will make SANE more than just the realization of Darpa’s former, unfairly maligned goal of “Total Information Awareness.” The Sanity Module will include a disable function, which in response to a radio command from a SANE operative shuts down the motor functions of the host, facilitating arrest. Eventually the module—again, given advances in neural-code research—may even take control of the host’s motor cortex and direct him to proceed to a specified location for more convenient capture.

To reduce expenses and encourage acceptance, the Sanity Module should be small enough to be implantable as an outpatient procedure via syringe, perhaps through the ocular cavity, rather than being inserted through holes drilled in the skull.

Implementation of SANE will pose challenges, notably decisions concerning who–and under what circumstances–will be equipped with a Sanity Module. During an initial technical and political pilot test, the module could be implanted in U.S. citizens arrested, indicted or convicted of crimes; illegal aliens and candidates for U.S. immigration and citizenship; and people associated with Islam or other suspect organizations.

The success of the pilot program, I am confident, will persuade the public to accept implantation of the Sanity Module in all U.S. citizens, including all infants within a week after birth.

Many actual and potential enemies of the U.S. dwell beyond its borders. Hence the U.S. should encourage other nations to implant Sanity Modules in their populations by making implantation a prerequisite for humanitarian or military aid. The U.S. could also assure nations that in exchange for implementing SANE they will never—or only in rare, emergency situations–be subject to U.S. drone strikes and cyberattacks.

Implantation exemptions will naturally be granted for high-ranking security and political personnel. Moreover, wealthy U.S. citizens could purchase exemptions for themselves and family members, with proceeds supporting SANE operations.

Darpa is now perfectly positioned to launch SANE, given that we are the major funder of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative recently announced by President Obama. I have no doubt that the U.S. neuroscience community–which has enthusiastically sought funding from Darpa and other military organizations without getting bogged down in endless ethical debates–will embrace SANE and quickly make it a reality.

I eagerly await your response to this proposal.

Yours truly, Dr. Parsons



John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Chryses 9:17 pm 07/8/2013

    Big Brother loves you, John.

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  2. 2. limetree 2:43 pm 07/11/2013

    “the module could be implanted in [...] people associated with Islam or other suspect organizations.”

    since when Islam is a suspect organization?
    it’s a religion, lol.
    in order for this to be effective, there should be people who actively watch everybody’s data and try to interpret it. who’s going to watch them? there are too many people in this world and we are not here to freak out about every single one of our actions.
    this sounds really useless and not practical at all.

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  3. 3. MultiWoman 6:57 am 07/13/2013

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? , “Who will guard the guards themselves?”

    (Juvenal, Satire VI, lines 347–8)

    John knows the answer, but it’s best if we each try to understand the question.

    Link to this
  4. 4. rshoff 12:53 pm 08/6/2013

    NO to S.A.N.E. !!! YES to S.A.G.E. !! Security Assurance through Genetic Engineering. The idea being, we can genetically engineer a perfect society where social compliance and submission to control is in our DNA!

    Other species have em’barked’ along the same path. Dogs for example ! Especially those cute little lap dogs. They’re just so PRE-SCIOUS!

    Everyone wants to be a lap dog. Don’t they?

    Link to this
  5. 5. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 8:08 pm 08/7/2013

    Darpa is no doubt working on that too. But have you ever noticed that some tiny dogs are vicious?

    Link to this
  6. 6. rshoff 4:25 am 08/16/2013

    I have John! And sometimes I fear that the yapping mutt is me.

    But I try to mean well. And sometimes try at humor and sarcasm. Hopefully never lashing out at individuals.

    Link to this

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