As a researcher, I gotta say: Now is a really fun time to be involved in brain-to-brain communication. From the comfort of your own antiseptic research lab, you get to play video games with people in other billion-dollar research facilities, play word games with each other, and fire bursts of weird light into each other’s skulls.
These technologies are still nascent right now — limited, clunky, error-prone. But brain-to-brain communication is going to get giddily weird in our lifetimes. If we forecast the current experiments ahead several decades, well, there’s really no telling where it could go. Imagine a future in which anything you think, I can do, and vice-versa.
The latest installment in this line of research happened recently at the University of Washington, conducted by researchers Rajesh Rao, Chantel Prat and lead author Andrea Stocco. In this experiment, a “respondent” was hooked up to an electroencephalography machine, which records electrical activity generated by the brain. Meanwhile, an “Inquirer” was hooked up to a transcranial magnetic stimulation machine, which fires magnetic waves into the skull of the person wearing it.
Using this setup, the respondent is shown an image of something. The Inquirer then sees a list of possible objects that the respondent might be looking at, and a list of associated questions they can ask to figure out which one it is. The Inquirer starts asking any of these questions by clicking on them with a mouse. After reading the question that the Inquirer has sent, the respondent considers two LED lights attached to his monitor which flash at different frequencies, one for “yes” and one for “no.” The respondent answers the question by staring at the appropriate LED.
The EEG on the respondent’s head detects which answer is being recorded in the brain of the respondent, and sends that information via the internet to the magnetic coil worn by the Inquirer. If the answer is “yes,” the response generated by the magnetic coil in the TMS is strong enough to stimulate the visual cortex of the Inquirer. This produces little blobs of light in the visual field of the respondent, affectionately known as phosphenes. So, if you’re the Inquirer and you ask “Does the object have a tentacle mustache and live underground?” and it suddenly looks like you’re pushing on your own eyeballs so hard that you see weird, dancing light, then you know the answer is yes, and you know that the answer is (hopefully) Cthulhu. Fun!
Multiple controls were included, which I will not dive into here, but it all seems to check out. Over several trials, respondents were able to accurately guess the object 72 percent of the time, compared with only 18 percent in control rounds. And with a little practice, the number of correct guesses might even be higher. It’s probably hard to get used to seeing phosphenes in your visual field and knowing if you really are seeing them or if you just accidentally took a handful of drugs before the experiment. Get the full effect by watching a video, here.
The study builds on other efforts in brain-to-brain communication, including previous work also carried out by Rao, Prat, and Stocco. In their previous study, one participant, a “Receiver,” sat with his hand on a control pad and a TMS on his head, and watched a video game. Another participant, the “Sender,” sat in another room in another building about a half-mile away and wore an EEG cap. The Sender had to defend a city from rocket-launching pirates who were probably not hugged as children — but he didn’t have access to the physical control pad. The only way to do it was to think about moving his fingers appropriately, which would induce the receiver to actually move her fingers and play the game (albeit with a lower success rate: anywhere from 25 percent to 83 percent depending on the pair of individuals playing). So a little bit like remote desktop sharing, but for your head.
The idea with these studies is pretty simple: The EEG just records electrical activity. You can write a program to detect any given pattern (such as a specific frequency of flashing light). With that as input, you can drive any output you want, including other hardware (such as cranking up the output of a magnetic coil placed over the occipital cortex). Though unrefined, it’s a proof of principle with enormous potential.
So much potential, in fact, that it could revolutionize our current means of communication. Imagine just being able to strap on your wearable cap and voila! No more texting while driving. In fact, no more texting. Period.
The telecom industry, incidentally, is projected to pull in revenues around three quarters of a trillion dollars in 2015, a figure you may recognize as being roughly the entire gross domestic product of the oil-rich country Saudi Arabia. Needless to say, a lot of shareholders in mobile phone manufacturers and carriers might be less than pleased at the prospect of wearable telepathy devices, unless they were the ones driving it.
And what about the apps? If you could just record a message directly from your brain and post it to a public forum for any of your contacts to read, would there be any need to log in to Facebook or Twitter? We’re already providing all of the content for these sites, so as soon as the technology underlying the monetization of our own thoughts changes, there may not be a need for any of these social media platforms in their current versions. Transferring your thoughts — perhaps even memories — to other peoples’ minds could amount to a crude version of immortality.
On the flip side, it would just be a matter of time until wearing one of these caps opens you up to compulsory ads. Profit from brain-to-brain communication will be inevitable, because America. You’ll put on your cap to contact your friend and suddenly start daydreaming about Call of Duty 17. Maybe we should just go back to the telegraph.
Still, it would be a cool technology. You wouldn’t have to take the time to turn on your phone and compose a text, which, for people like me who have hooves for fingers, is laborious and filled with edits. Instead, you could just do a quick “Hey! Knock, knock! Just wanted to let you know that we’re putting cover sheets on all of our TPS reports now.” It would be like poking your head into the office down the hall, but from Spain.
Or if your sink explodes, you can just connect to a local plumber, who will actually do all of the emergency repair work through your body. Or you might connect to a paramedic in the event that a loved one is in need of immediate assistance. Or you could just impress the hell out of your friends and suddenly know how to look devastatingly handsome wearing a top hat while playing Chopin on the piano immaculately – until it’s revealed how much you paid a professional pianist to do it remotely. At which point the joke is on you.
In any case, once Skynet (or Google) figures out all of our communicative thought patterns, then we’ll all get to be mental marionettes. And that’ll be nice. I’ve had enough of thinking for myself, anyway.