Israeli Hacker Turned Brain Researcher Making Waves

Noa Limone
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Noa Limone

In autumn 2010, Moran Cerf, a 34-year-old neuroscientist, received an urgent phone call from the BBC in England. "We want to put you on our evening news program," he was told. "Your research will be at the center of the broadcast. Primarily your discovery about how it's possible to read people's dreams."

Cerf was taken aback: He'd never researched, read or recorded dreams as the BBC people thought he had. He started to think back. Not long before, he had produced a short video explaining the latest study in which he'd taken part, while working in the Computational Neurosciene department at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) - the only place in the world where experiments are performed on the brains of living subjects.

Moran CerfCredit: AP

The research has been made possible because UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center is treating patients suffering from very severe epilepsy that does not respond to any medication. As part of an innovative new treatment, neurosurgeons open up the skull and attach electrodes to the patient's brain, leaving them in place for several days in anticipation of a seizure. In this way, the doctors can locate the source of the epileptic attacks and surgically remove it, thus curing the patient. The brain surgeon in charge is Israeli-born Prof. Itzhak Fried, director of the functional neurosurgery unit at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, who flies from Israel to Los Angeles once a month to oversee the procedure.

The Caltech researchers are taking advantage of the fact that these patients spend days awake, with their brains attached to electrodes. With the patients' consent, various experiments are performed. As part of this much-publicized research, Cerf and his colleagues were able to identify a single cell which, when electronically active, means the person is thinking of a specific subject. When the patient is thinking about Barack Obama, for instance, a certain cell in his brain is active - and it is active only when the patient thinks about Barack Obama. Another cell is activated electrically when the patient thinks about his mother, and only when he thinks about her.

In other words, Cerf and his colleagues found thought. After the researchers map groups of such cells, they can look at the patient's brain activity, which is transmitted by the electrodes, the way one would look at a map.

Cerf: "After we mapped the brain in the morning, we came back to the patient in the evening and asked him to think about whatever he wanted. As he did, we 'listened' to his brain, and whenever he thought about something that we knew made his brain look a certain way when he was thinking about it - we showed him the picture the thought represents. The patient sat in front of a black screen and thought about his mother. And then we put a picture of his mother on the screen. We reached a point where, when we looked at his brain, we actually saw a story: We saw him go from thinking about his mother to thinking about work, to thinking about the supermarket, and so on."

When the patients saw, in effect, their thoughts screened back to them, they were quite enchanted, says Cerf. "To make it more interesting we created all kinds of games for them that are activated by the power of their thoughts. In one game, for example, a spaceship appears on the screen, and by thinking a certain thought - about your mother, say - you can make it fly upward, and by thinking about your father, you can make it fly downward. This way the patient could sit in front of the screen and play, without using his hands."

The revolutionary study was published in the prestigious journal Nature in 2010. To clarify its complexities, Cerf suggested preparing a short video that would explain the researchers' work. At the end of it, one of them says that the new procedure developed could theoretically make it possible to record dreams.

"The journal publicized the video and somehow it made it to the BBC in England, which took our research one step too far and presented it as being able to read and record dreams," Cerf explains. "It is theoretically possible but it has never been done. There are many limitations that prevent such an experiment for the time being. In any case, that wasn't what our research was about."

Cerf's protests were to no avail. The final item on that evening's news program was: "Scientists in Los Angeles have succeeded in reading people's thoughts and seeing their dreams. " And that was only the beginning. Before long the item was No. 1 on the BBC website and spread everywhere from there, with more inaccuracies being added at every turn.

"An hour later the headline was: 'Scientists read dreams and keep them on a hard disk,' and then: 'The U.S. Army is paying scientists to read our dreams,'" relates Cerf. "The story spread like wildfire. I received dozens of reports that it was being talked about all over the world, in many languages. It was the opening item on news shows and I started getting hundreds of emails a day from people asking for advice about their dreams. I even got a phone call from Apple - they were interested in 'my dream-recording product' and wanted to turn it into an app." But go try to convince people that they've got it wrong.

Cerf explained to everyone who contacted him that it was a mistake. But people refused to believe it. "They said, 'We get it: You want to keep it secret.' Nothing helped."

Soon it wasn't funny anymore.

Cerf: "I was pretty upset about it. I was afraid the hospital would stop working with us, I was afraid of the patients' reactions. It was around Halloween time and to cheer ourselves up we went to a costume party."

Cerf, in an ironic gesture, went dressed as Sigmund Freud, "and then someone took my picture and posted it on the Internet, and before long, another article about the scientist who reads dreams showed a picture of me dressed up as Freud."

Relief finally arrived two weeks later when Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton, pushing the dream-reading story out of the headlines.

Hacking Amazon

Cerf didn't originally aim for a career in science. Until a few years ago, he mostly lived off of bank "robberies." Over the last few weeks, a YouTube video clip in which he talks about his life as a hacker, about an actual bank heist in which he physically participated, and about his subsequent decision to become a scientist, has racked up over 300,000 hits.

"Ten years ago," he says in the clip, "I used to steal $7,000-$10,000 a week. I was part of a team of three hackers, and together we would hack into the bank, withdraw the money and go to the bank's owners and say: 'Look, we stole your money. Why don't you give us a little of this money and we'll help you secure the bank better?'"

Loud laughter can be heard in the background. Cerf goes on to say that deep down he wanted to be a scientist, but he didn't think any other profession could provide the same thrills as he got from being a hacker. Not to mention, he adds, that it was also a cool way to introduce yourself at parties.

"Nowadays it's more accepted as a profession, but that wasn't the case then," Cerf says now. "Today, most people do their banking through a bank's website. Because of the fear that someone will steal money via the site, the bank's board of directors, without telling its employees, may hire an outside company to do what a hacker would do, and then write a report explaining how it's done, so as to repair the breach. I think that today, in Israel at least, it's something that the government requires every bank to do. When we did it, it was so rare still that we hacked companies like Amazon and eBay, giant companies that didn't know anything about security."

He describes a typical hacking operation: "In the early 2000s, when you bought a book on Amazon, for example, all the information on the item that you selected (price and quantity ) was preserved somewhere in the buyer's computer. When you finished shopping, the computer sent all the information on the items to the site and totaled it up. Since the information was saved on the buyer's computer, you could get into it and change the amount from $10 to $1 or even to minus, so not only did you not pay for the items, your account was credited. You could also buy a hundred items and arrange it so their sums would come out to zero. This method doesn't work anymore. But it used to be that almost every site worked this way."

"In September 2000," says Cerf in the YouTube video, "we had to hack into a small bank in Tel Aviv. We had two weeks to finish the job, but within five days we'd already taken the site completely apart. We could do anything. Transfer money from one account to another, see everyone's information."

Cerf describes how he was about to finish the project and present the report to the bank's board of directors, when suddenly Tami, one of the members of the team, pointed out to him that the job description also said they were permitted to physically break into the bank.

"Tami's 35," he says in the video clip, "and she'd just split up with her boyfriend after nine years because he didn't want to have a kid with her. She's very unstable," he quips. "And I know this when she asks me to rob the bank."

The audience roars - and Cerf goes on to say how he eventually gave in and the three members of the team walked into a small branch where just one teller was working. First to enter was Gal, the youngest, with a camera attached to his stomach. His job was to film everything in case something went wrong. When he signaled that the coast was clear, Cerf and Tami also came in.

"I don't know how many of you have ever robbed a bank," Cerf tells the audience, "but it's really scary. And there's a certain moment - a second before you announce 'This is a stick-up' - when you could still change your mind."

Cerf hesitated, but Tami went up to the teller and said: "This is a robbery, open up Safe No. 1003." Cerf describes the teller, a young woman engrossed at that moment in studying for her psychometric exam. She slowly closes her book, gets up and casually leads Tami to the safe.

Cerf goes on to describe how the safe turns out to contain a lot more money than they expected, and how an argument breaks out among the robbers over whether to take it and leave, or put it back. Cerf decides on the latter tact, and politely asks the teller to return the money to the safe - but she gives him the key and tells him to put it back himself. When he goes out to the front, he finds Gal flirting with the teller and giving her his phone number, and Tami is holding a baby for a customer who just came in to make a deposit.

"And all of a sudden it's all very strange," recalls Cerf, describing how on the way back from the "robbery," he thought: What a cool day it was, and that the thrill came not only from what he did, but from having spontaneously agreeing to a suggestion. Surprising things can happen when you say "yes." And so he decided to leave his job and join Caltech as a scientist, study and become part of the research team.

'Like a chess match'

In fact, the main trigger for his career switch was more personal. "I'd broken up with my girlfriend [Tami from the story ] and was looking for a place that was far enough away so I wouldn't have to see her get married and have children," Cerf now confesses. Two months before the breakup, Cerf attended a conference on consciousness. The main speaker was a renowned brain researcher, with whom he got a chance to talk later, at a dinner.

"He was the keynote speaker and all he wanted to talk to me about was how to hack computers," says Cerf. "This was in 2003, and the field was new then. People thought it was magic."

The expert was convinced that Cerf's talents as a hacker would serve him well in science. "He was a student of Francis Crick, the man who discovered DNA, along with James D. Watson," Cerf relates. Both were part of a large group of scientists who during World War II had worked in England with Alan Turing to break the Germans' 'Enigma' code. After the war, everyone in the group pursued his particular field of science, and ended up winning a Nobel Prize. That's why this expert thought that someone who was good at computers would also be good at science."

At the time he just took it as a nice compliment, but within a few months it turned into an opportunity.

"I flew to Los Angeles," he says. "I spent four months in his lab and by the end I'd made up my mind to leave my work in Israel. Within six months I was back there, and starting on my doctorate."

And do you really see a connection between hacking and science?

"Yes, in a few key ways. First of all, hacking is a very Sisyphean enterprise. You work for hours and hours, and most of the time nothing comes out of it. You have to be patient and to try all the possibilities. It's similar to science. There's another similarity in terms of the tools: You use programming, mathematics, statistics, a lot of exact science."

But above all, there's something in the approach that's very similar.

"As a hacker, you get a black box. You know that you're putting something into it and something else is coming out, but you don't know what's happening inside. You have to learn about it by trial and error. You have to be creative, because it's not something that others have already done. The brain works in the same way: You see what goes in and what comes out, but you don't know what's happening inside.

"When I worked as a computer hacker, I thought of it as chess match, with the programmer of the site I was hacking as my opponent; he was sitting there writing the best code he could so I wouldn't be able to break it, and I was always trying to see where his weaknesses were. For example, if I knew that he went home at five in the evening, I would call him at 4:30 and start pestering him with tough questions. If I called him at 10 in the morning with the same question, he would spend an hour explaining it to me, but if I called him at 4:50, there's a good chance he'll just give me the password and let me try myself. A lot of mistakes are made out of laziness. Such as, when you write the code in a smart way, but then you don't check all the possible scenarios, to make sure you've covered them."

Cerf says that the actual, physical bank holdup, which is presented in the YouTube clip as a one-time event, was something he did fairly routinely in his hacker days. "We would get jobs with different levels of break-ins. One was to do it online, but often we were asked to go to the bank itself, to check if it was physically secured. For example, it wasn't unusual to see computer passwords taped to a screen with a Post-it note. That's something we would report on. In more sophisticated instances, we would come in disguised as technicians and enter the back room. We'd try to see how far we could get with the information we obtained via the computer."

Champion storyteller

The video clip's popularity has surprised Cerf, to some degree: "A month ago I was invited to the biggest hacker conference in the world. They say that when hackers pray, they face Berlin, because once a year that's where the world's top hackers gather for a conference on computer hacking. Everyone who's ever spoken there became a famous hacker. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, was a regular speaker there, and Mark Zuckerberg used to come there before he became widely known. I was invited this year to speak at the conference on the connection between science and computer hacking."

Before Cerf's talk, Cory Doctorow, a science-fiction author and coeditor of the blog Boing Boing, started chatting with him. "He'd seen my story and said he wanted to put it on his site." And so it happened.

"Within hours he told me that the response on the site was huge. The video was something of an underdog story, because Internet stars are usually well-known and suddenly you have this anonymous hacker becoming a big sensation. It was like 'Revenge of the Nerds.'"

The clip is actually the result of a weekly storytelling event organized by a group called Moth. Cerf says it started as a project of a few friends in Atlanta and has since grown to an event involving around 1,000 people, which takes place at clubs in New York, Los Angeles and other American cities. A topic is set for each evening, and anyone can place his name in a hat and hope he is chosen at the start of the evening to get up and tell his story.

Cerf says it has to be a true story and you have to tell it in five minutes, without any notes. In the crowd are judges: They may be writers, editors (the editor of The New York Times sometimes attends ), and other experts who award points to the storytellers.

"Sometimes famous people appear there, like Salman Rushdie, but anyone can take part," Cerf explains. "And the stories are always very moving. This thing has caught on all over the country. It's on the radio, there's a website with hundreds of videos of stories, a podcast. It's a huge success."

Cerf's story, on an evening devoted to "big breakthroughs," was voted the best nationwide for the year 2010.

Cerf is no stranger to success. It's almost hard to see how he's fit so much in to his 34 years. He was born in France and moved to Israel with his family at a young age. He attended a school for the arts and took part in various children's television programs. In the army, he served in intelligence Unit 8200; thereafter he went to work right away as a programmer at Check Point. At the same time, he earned a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's in the philosophy of science (at age 24); he also found time to get a pilot's license, to be active in a university student association, to go mountain climbing and master the piano. In 2009, he completed his doctorate in neuroscience at Caltech. While studying and working there, he also took classes at a nearby design school. He mostly studied animation and computer game development, which served him later in his brain research.

So how does he do it all? I offer my theory that he must not ever sleep. But Cerf doesn't even get what I'm talking about. "I feel like I do less than normal," he says, adding that he has plenty of free time and makes sure to be with friends. "I feel very Israeli in that way - friends are the most important thing to me."

He attributes his impressive achievements largely to luck, to being in the right place at the right time: "I happened to land at the only place in the world where they do open-brain experiments on people, and so the research makes a lot of waves. But when it succeeds it's not really due to me. And when I was a hacker, it was a time when it was easy to be one, because companies didn't understand about security. I had a computer from the time I was young, I was part of the generation that knows how to [hack] - not because we were extra smart or anything. You didn't have to be such a big genius to hack into Amazon at the time. Anyone who had a computer could have done it.

"Even the fact that my story won the storytelling contest was a matter of luck," he insists. "The topic that evening was 'The big breakthrough,' and it took place in Los Angeles. As you can imagine, all the other stories were about 'How I make a breakthrough in Hollywood.' My story was unusual so it got attention."

Bothered by unhappiness

Of course, it's not only luck. Beyond his talent, Cerf's accomplishments can apparently be chalked up to another quality: his strong belief that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Thus, for example, when he and his colleagues were asked to prepare an explanatory video clip about the research published in Nature, Cerf ended up taking the project upon himself. To do so, he had to learn how to make a film.

"I think that's why it's so hard to work with me," he says. "Or to be my girlfriend."

What motivates you?

"I'm curious; unsolved riddles motivate me. I want to find answers to questions that occupied me as a child, like why people are sad. It doesn't matter to me if I'm the one to find the answer or someone else. I just want answers."

Cerf is still bothered by the question of why most people are not happy, which is at the center of a revolutionary research study he is involved in, whose results are due to be published this year.

"Today we have access to regions of the brain where emotions happen," he explains. "People have difficulty controlling feelings. Most of the time we feel things without choosing to feel them. Something happens that saddens you and sadness occurs - it's like you're observing this feeling happening to you as you would in anyone else. You're sitting there in your body and sadness happens to you, or happiness happens to you. You can influence the input, but you have no control over your response to it.

"In the experiment we attach an electrode to the area of the brain that activates these sensations, of happiness and sadness, and then we can make the person feel things, without something having changed in the external reality. We gradually make him feel happy or sad, and ask him to describe how he's feeling at each moment, and how and why the feeling is changing. By making the subjects 'feel' things, and teaching them to 'create' feelings - to willfully synthesize happiness, or to overcome fear - and seeing how the brain performs those actions, we're learning how feelings work, how long it takes them to be aroused, why we experience feelings as 'something that happens to us' and not as 'something we choose to feel.'"

The objective, says Cerf, is to eventually come to understand how to control feelings. "Animals and babies cannot control or regulate their feelings at all. At a certain stage of development, human beings learn to control their feelings to some degree. If we learn what is happening between infancy and adulthood from this standpoint, what we learn and where it is stored in the brain - we could potentially understand, one day, how to be happier.

"The purpose of the research is to understand what happens when you become happy, why you can't stay happy all the time, why it's temporary and how long it takes you from the moment something good happens until you experience the sensation of happiness.

"You asked what motivates me. If this research succeeds, and eventually, one day, we can develop a happiness pill, or at least explain it better, or we could tell someone: You'll never be truly happy because it appears that you can only reach level 8 and not 9 on the happiness scale. If I had that, I'd feel like I could retire."