Scientists Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco at the University Of Washington believe that they are the first people to demonstrate human brain-to-brain communication, using an electronic interface.
Both researchers sat comfortably at chairs in separate rooms. Both were connected to EEG machines, which were used to pick up Rao’s brain signals, and send appropriate ones over the Internet to Stocco.
Rao, who had been practicing the technique beforehand, was set in front of a screen with a simple video game. In order to “fire” an in game object, Rao needed to hit a key. Except, he didn’t press anything: careful to avoid budging his finger, he only imagined the action.
Back in the other room, Stocco’s finger suddenly jerked to punch the space bar. Rao had moved Stocco’s finger, just by thinking about it.
“The intention can be as detectable as the movement itself,” said Chantel Prat, an assistant professor who aided in the project. “Brain-computer interfaces have been capturing this with increasing accuracy over the last decade.”
The teams for both researchers collaborated over Skype, though it is important to note that neither Stocco nor Rao could see the screens. Stocco was therefore unable to see the game, or to know when his partner had thought about jumping. In fact, noise cancelling earbuds prevented him from even hearing anything.
And yet, the involuntary reaction coincided nearly instantaneously.
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Prat was enthusiastic about the results, observing that “Right now the only way to transfer information from one brain to another is with words. You can imagine all complex motor skills, which are difficult to verbalize, are just chains of procedures,” she said.
Thus, it is an interesting potential that the technology could be used to decompile, save, and retransmit human brain signals. In this sense, behavior could be captured, and sent from computers to humans in the future.
But anticipating those who may be less enthusiastic about the technology, Prat addressed the potential for the developing concept to be abused, saying “The signal is being transmitted remotely through the Internet, but the humans are connected to physical equipment and must be trained to create the right signals. There is no way to control minds without their willingness.”
All the same, it is dubious whether many others will share Prat’s confidence, and be thus willing to open their minds to this new technology.
But all good tools have a dark side. Doubts aside, the implications of the experiment are without a doubt fascinating, and full of possibilities. One can easily see how it might be used in education, therapy, and healthcare.