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Could humans be infected by computer viruses?

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A scientist at the University of Reading has become the first person in the world to be infected by a computer virus. Dr Mark Gasson, from the School of Systems Engineering, contaminated a computer chip which had been inserted into his hand as part of research into human enhancement and the potential risks of implantable devices. These results could have huge implications for implantable computing technologies used medically to improve health, such as heart pacemakers and cochlear implants, and as new applications are found to enhance healthy humans. Dr Gasson says that as the technology behind these implants develops, they become more vulnerable to computer viruses. “Our research shows that implantable technology has developed to the point where implants are capable of communicating, storing and manipulating data,” he said. “They are essentially mini computers. This means that, like mainstream computers, they can be infected by viruses and the technology will need to keep pace with this so that implants, including medical devices, can be safely used in the future.” Dr Gasson will present his results next month at the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society in Australia, which he is also chairing. A high-end Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip was implanted into Dr Gasson’s left hand last year. Less sophisticated RFID technology is used in shop security tags to prevent theft and to identify missing pets. The chip has allowed him secure access to his University building and his mobile phone. It has also enabled him to be tracked and

profiled. Once infected, the chip corrupted the main system used to communicate with it. Should other devices have been connected to the system, the virus would have been passed on. Dr Gasson said: “By infecting my own implant with a computer virus we have demonstrated how advanced these technologies are becoming and also had a glimpse at the problems of tomorrow. “Much like people with medical implants, after a year of having the implant, I very much feel that it is part of my body. While it is exciting to be the first person to become infected by a computer virus in this way, I found it a surprisingly violating experience because the implant is so intimately connected to me but the situation is potentially out of my control. “I believe it is necessary to acknowledge that our next evolutionary step may well mean that we all become part machine as we look to enhance ourselves. Indeed we may find that there are significant social pressures to have implantable technologies, either because it becomes as much of a social norm as say mobile phones, or because we’ll be disadvantaged if we do not. However we must be mindful of the new threats this step brings.” Dr Mark Gasson Senior Research Fellow * Cybernetic Intelligence Research Group. (Cybernetic intelligence is the study of intelligence and its application. It is an approach characterised by its emphasis on sub-symbolic knowledge representation and bottom-up (ie. data driven) problem solving. Cybernetic intelligence

describes theoretical, mathematical and philosophical aspects of consciousness and intelligence and their application to the design of intelligent machines and the control of complex systems.The group has gained an extremely high international reputation, as evidenced by the large number of requests for group members to visit key international research institutes and conversely for their members to visit the group, together with corresponding global media interest in the labs.  The group has witnessed considerable success in the field of autonomous intelligent robotics. In collaboration with the bioengineering unit of the ISRG, pioneering research has been undertaken into hurnan-computer implant technology, utilising a radical new direct interface to the nervous system.) Select keynotes and public lectures.  * ‘Could you become infected with a Computer Virus?’ Annual AS Level IT Student Conference, London, November 2010 * ‘From Pervasive to Invasive: Our Future with Technology’ (Keynote) IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society, June 2010 * ‘Enhancement: Bodies in the Future’ FutureEverything and the Manchester Science Festival, May 2010 * ‘Beyond the Body? Perspectives on Enhancement’ Institute for Science Ethics and Innovation, University of Manchester, April 2010 * ‘Future Tracking’ Annual AS Level IT Student Conference, London, November 2009 * ‘Biometric Humans’, 6th IAPR/IEEE International Summer School for Advanced Studies on Biometrics, June 2009 * ‘Identity of the Mind, Body and Spirit’ FIDIS Doctoral Consortium, Greece, June 2008 * ‘ICT Implants: The invasive future of identity?’ (Keynote) 3rd International FIDIS/IFIP Summer School,

Sweden, August 2007 * ‘Technologies of Body and Mind’ Jyväskylä Arts Festival, Finland, July 2006 * ‘Homo Sapiens 2.0’ (Keynote) NEMO Science Centre, Holland, Nov 2003 Public engagement; Dr Gasson is passionate about getting young people engaged and excited about science and technology and he aims to generate interest by making the topics accessible and relevant through a variety of activities. He frequently delivers invited public lectures and workshops internationally and has participated in over 100 varied events in the last ten years. He also regularly engages with the national press and other media outlets, including being a guest expert for BBC news, in order to communicate in the widest arena possible. After co-ordinating the successful Androids Advance initiative, Dr Gasson continues to promote engineering through interactive Robotics Master Classes aimed at school children of all abilities. These events are a unique approach which aims to both educate and fire the imagination through hands on use of state-of-the-art technology. Making research accessible in this way offers a great opportunity for young students to actually use and explore a technology that they may not otherwise see. For more information please contact Rona Cheeseman, press officer news from reading.ac.uk

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