Telepathy. ESP. Mentalism. Whatever you call it, the ability to communicate thoughts, feelings, or experiences without using our known sensory channels is a timeless superpower that’s served countless science fiction tales, sparked endless debates between paranormal researchers and skeptics, and injected wonder into centuries of magic. But as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
In the not-so-distant future, advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and computer science will make it possible to link our brains together in synthetic telepathy. Along the way, we’ll be faced with profoundly difficult ethical questions and hopefully develop new empathic tendencies. And ultimately, we’ll learn through experience that the most powerful computers on the network are the ones inside our heads.
Brain science break throughs
The following are some of the most mind-blowing recent breakthroughs in the realm of brain-to-brain interfaces.
2012 Hearing the Voices in Someone Else’s Head
UC Berkeley researchers were able to identify the words that volunteers heard just by monitoring and decoding the activity in the volunteers’ temporal lobe, the region of the brain that processes auditory information. (The individuals had been implanted with electrodes as part of a multi-step surgical procedure to treat epilepsy and had volunteered to be part of this unrelated study.)
According to neuroscientist Brian N. Pasley, when people imagine that they are speaking a word, the same parts of the brain are activated as when they actually say the word out loud. “If you can understand the relationship well enough between the brain recordings and sound, you could either synthesize the actual sound a person is thinking, or just write out the words with a type of interface device,” he says.
2013 Interspecies ESP
In a pioneering demonstration of an interspecies brain-to-brain interface, Harvard radiology professor Seung-Schik Yoo and his colleagues enabled a human to transmit a mental signal directly to a sleeping rat’s motor cortex, triggering the rodent to move its tail. Their major breakthrough was devising an interface that was entirely noninvasive—no holes in the human or rat’s head necessary. The person wore a hat outfitted with EEG electrodes that detect neural activity through the scalp, while the rat was positioned under a focused ultrasound machine that delivers a beam of acoustic energy to a specific region of the brain. Whenever the human looked at a flickering light on a computer display, it generated a specific brainwave pattern that triggered the ultrasound beam, spurring the rodent to unconsciously move its tail.
Someday, the researchers wrote in their scientific paper, a bidirectional system based on their technique could make it possible for “neural information [to] be transmitted between individuals separated by a great distance using the Internet protocol.”
2013 Head Games
In 2013, University of Washington researchers demonstrated the first noninvasive human-to-human brain interface and also the likely future of videogaming. Computational neuroscientist Rajesh Rao wore an EEG cap while watching a Space Invaders game play out on a computer screen. Across campus, Rao’s colleague Andrea Stocco had his finger near a button that would fire the laser cannon in the game, although he couldn’t actually see the game itself. Stocco was under a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) coil, a machine that delivers pulses to stimulate specific regions of the brain. When the moment came for Rao to fire his laser cannon, he imagined the act but didn’t actually move a muscle.
That brain activity stimulated the TMS coil near Stocco’s head, triggering him to involuntarily click the button to fire the cannon. “We plugged a brain into the most complex computer anyone has ever studied, and that is another brain,” said Chantel Prat, a psychology professor on the research team.
2014 Mental Morse Code
Hola. Ciao. Those were the two words sent directly from a person’s brain in India to three people’s minds in France via a system devised by Starlab Barcelona. The sender of the message, wearing an EEG helmet, imagined moving his hands or feet, a visualization translated into a zero or one. The series of zeros and ones was transmitted to the remote locations where the recipients were positioned under TMS coils, which delivered pulses to specific regions of the brain.
In this case, the pulses from the TMS devices triggered the receiver to see ashes of lights, representing the signals sent from India. In Starlab Barcelona’s scientific paper the researchers described this kind of computermediated brain-to-brain communication as “hyperinteraction.” “We envision that hyperinteraction technologies will eventually have a profound impact on the social structure of our civilization and raise important ethical issues,” they wrote.
2015 A Computer of Interconnected Brains
After decades of pioneering work on mind-controlled prosthetic limbs, Duke University neuroengineer Miguel Nicolelis and his team are now developing “networks formed by multiple animal brains, cooperating and exchanging information in real time through direct brain-to-brain interfaces.” They call them “brainets.”
In one experiment, Nicolelis’s lab implanted electrodes in multiple rats and wired them together. The rats learned to coordinate their brains and share simple information between them. Next, the researchers moved on to monkeys, again linking pairs and even trios of the animals’ brains together via computer. The monkeys learned to collaboratively control a computer representation of a robot arm with only their thoughts. “Essentially, we created a super-brain,” Nicolelis said.
Today’s guest contributor is David Pescovitz, a research director at Institute for the Future, is co-editor/partner at the influential tech/culture website Boing Boing and the co-founder of Ozma Records. This post originally appeared on Institute for the Future blog.
Image credit: Pixabay