It sounds like something out of science fiction: One person thinks about pressing the spacebar on a keyboard to fire a cannon in a video game, and another person across campus is compelled to press the spacebar for real, even though he doesn’t see the game on-screen.
It’s essentially that very scenario, however, that scientists at the University of Washington recently achieved using an electroencephalography machine and transcranial magnetic stimulation.
Specifically, earlier this month Rajesh Rao, a University of Washington professor of computer science and engineering, and Andrea Stocco, a UW research assistant professor in psychology at the university’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, demonstrated what they believe is a first: the connection of two human brains to send activity from one to another.
“The Internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains,” said Stocco. “We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain.”
The achievement was announced by the university on Tuesday. Neither Rao nor Stocco responded to our request for further details.
In the past, Duke University researchers have conducted experiments involving brain-to-brain communications between rats, while a team at Harvard has demonstrated communication from a human brain to a rat’s brain.
It’s the human-to-human connection, however, that appears to be a first.
To achieve it, Rao wore a cap with electrodes that went to an electroencephalography machine, which reads brain activity. Stocco, meanwhile, wore a swim cap fitted with a stimulation site for the transcranial magnetic stimulation coil that sent a signal to the left motor cortex, which controls hand movement. The two subjects were on opposite ends of the University of Washington campus; signals were sent over the Internet.
The resulting interface between the two researchers’ brains involved only a signal to make a gesture, such as pressing a key on a keyboard. The motion is voluntary in the experiment, so the recipient could ignore the incoming signal altogether.
More work needs to be done to advance the interface and develop more usable equipment before the science sees practical use. Still, the early research shows promise. While the experiment involved a video game, future development could allow for more applications, such as in science, aviation and medicine.
“I think it is very, very far from practical use,” Kirk Borne, a professor of Astrophysics and Computational Science at George Mason University, told TechNewsWorld. “The current setup is highly controlled and extraordinarily limited in its capabilities.”
Indeed, “this technology goes beyond words,” said Daniel Wilson, author of Robocalypse and Amped. Wilson earned a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University.
If the technology is expanded at some point to allow for more than just simple movements, there is some ground for concern.
“There are some concerns that this could be used for involuntary mind control of humans or mass control of nonhuman armies, such as armies of primates or other animals,” said Borne. “I think that these concerns are the stuff of science fiction movies — though we do realize that a lot of stuff in old science fiction, which people scoffed at, are becoming realities.”
There are some key differences, however.
For instance, Rao and Stocco’s experiment required “elaborate hardware to be strapped to both the sending and the receiving persons’ heads, with a lot of wiring and software in between,” he added. “It is not likely that such head gear will land on your head without your knowledge.”
Nevertheless, the future possibilities are intriguing.
“Brain-to-brain interfaces could create unprecedented levels of cooperation and communication between two or more human beings operating as a team,” Wilson told TechNewsWorld. “This technology could make an impact on any human beings who work together to solve complex tasks.”
The science could benefit surgeons, architects, scientists, construction workers, search and rescue teams, firefighters, astronauts and soldiers, Wilson said.
Brain-to-brain connections could also facilitate communication for those who can’t communicate by other means: “It could be used to enable paralyzed patients to type text messages through a surrogate typist,” Borne pointed out.
Alternatively, “a teacher could transfer knowledge to his or her students,” Wilson suggested, “via direct thought.”