WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
You get information into your head all the time – now scientists are trying to use technology to achieve it telepathically.
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Recently there’s been a lot of activity centered around developing the tools and technologies needed to help us unlock the mysteries and power of the human brain in order to help us realise amazing new science fiction like applications. Applications that include, for example, the ability to download and upload information to and from our minds, and stream our thoughts to the television, as well edit and transfer memories, communicate telepathically with one another and play games. And that’s all before I delve into the projects aimed at connecting our brains directly to powerful Artificial Intelligences (AI) in the cloud or Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitions to turn Facebook into the world’s first telepathic social network or DARPA’s ambitious programs that will one day let us telepathically transfer images between each other’s minds.
Yes, when it comes to neuroscience the only barrier, it appears, is our insane imagination, and now, in a new study researchers have announced that they’ve developed a new way to let people communicate telepathically with one another by directly linking the activity of their brains together to create the second version of what the team call an Organic Computer.
During the experiment the electrical activity from the brains of a pair of human test subjects was transmitted to the brain of a third person in the form of magnetic signals that conveyed an instruction to perform a specific task in a specific way, and the study opens the door to extraordinary new means of human collaboration while, at the same time, blurring fundamental notions about individual identity and autonomy.
In short, asides from the technology helping us one day realise the ability to network people, as well as other species, together to create organic computer networks that are capable of processing information, as well as collaboration and communication, it also brings us a step closer to being able to create the world’s first human hive mind network – bearing in mind that the US military and robots crossed that boundary a couple of years ago.
The researchers used what are increasingly coming to be known as Brain to Brain Interfaces (BBI) that, as the name suggests, enable brain to brain communication – also known as telepathy.
This is also the second such experiment that Michel Nicolelis, who led the experiment, has performed. In a previous study he and his team connected together several rat brains using implanted electrodes to create the first organic computer where living brains that could perform similar functions to today’s computer chips and microprocessors could be “tethered together to perform tasks.”
In this first experiment the rats in this “organic computer network” learned to synchronise the electrical activity of their nerve cells so much that they all ended up acting like a single brain. The networked brains were then tested for things such as their ability to discriminate between two different patterns of electrical stimuli, and they routinely outperformed individual animals showing that, as the saying goes, many brains are better than one – although this experiment probably isn’t what your grandma had in mind when she used that saying.
And if networked rat brains are “smarter” than a single animal then imagine the potential that an organic supercomputer of networked human brains operating as a single hive mind could achieve. Not only could such a network enable people to work across language barriers but it could provide those whose ability to communicate is impaired with a new means of doing so, as well as a multitude of other amazing, and terrifying, applications. Moreover, if the rat study is correct, networking human brains might enhance human performance, which then begs the question – could such a network be a faster, more efficient and smarter way of working together? Probably. And time will likely tell.
As for how they did it, during the experiment the team linked together the brain activity of a small network of humans, with three people sitting in separate rooms collaborating telepathically together to correctly orient a block so that it could fill a gap between other blocks in a video game.
Two of them, who acted as “Senders” could see the gap and knew whether the block needed to be rotated to fit. Meanwhile, the third person, who served as the “Receiver,” was blinded to the correct answer and needed to rely on the instructions sent by the senders.
The two senders were equipped with Electroencephalographs (EEGs) that recorded their brain’s electrical activity. Senders were able to see the orientation of the block and decide whether to signal the receiver to rotate it. They focused on a light flashing at a high frequency to convey the instruction to rotate or focused on one flashing at a low frequency to signal not to do so. The differences in the flashing frequencies caused disparate brain responses in the senders, which were captured by the EEGs and sent, via computer interface, to the receiver.
A magnetic pulse was delivered to the receiver using a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) device if a sender signalled to rotate. That magnetic pulse caused a flash of light, a phosphene, in the receiver’s visual field as a cue to turn the block. The absence of a signal within a discrete period of time was the instruction not to turn the block.
After gathering instructions from both senders, the receiver decided whether to rotate the block. Like the senders, the receiver was equipped with an EEG, in this case to signal that choice to the computer. Once the receiver decided on the orientation of the block, the game concluded, and the results were given to all three participants. This provided the senders with a chance to evaluate the receiver’s actions and the receiver with a chance to assess the accuracy of each sender.
The team was then given a second chance to improve its performance. Overall, five groups of individuals were tested using this network, called the “BrainNet,” and, on average, they achieved greater than 80 percent accuracy in completing the task.
In order to escalate the challenge, investigators sometimes added noise to the signal sent by one of the senders. Faced with conflicting or ambiguous directions, the receivers quickly learned to identify and follow the instructions of the more accurate sender. This process emulated some of the features of “conventional” social networks, according to the report.
Nicolelis’ experiment was also a natural extension of other work elsewhere previously done on lab animals. In addition to the work linking together rat brains he and his team have also linked multiple primate brains into a “Brainet,” which shouldn’t be confused with the BrainNet, where the primates learned to cooperate to complete a common task using traditional Brain Machine Interfaces (BMIs). In this particular experiment three primates were connected to the same computer with implanted BMIs and simultaneously tried to move a cursor to a target. In this case though the animals weren’t directly linked to one other like the human volunteers were in the latest experiment, and the challenge was for them to perform a feat of parallel processing, with each primate directing its activity toward a goal while continuously compensating for the activity of the others.
The development of BBI’s also gives us the opportunity to span across species, with humans using non-invasive methods similar to those in the BrainNet study to control cockroaches or rats that had surgically implanted brain interfaces. In one report, a human using a non-invasive brain interface linked, via computer, to the BMI of an anesthetised rat was able to move the animal’s tail. While in another study, a human controlled a rat as a freely moving cyborg.
All of this, of course, is just the beginning, which then begs the questions – one day will we all be tapping into the processing power of cockroach networks, or one day will you be the network?