Apr 01 2013

Brain to Brain Interface

We are seeing the beginning of technology to interface computers and brains. I have been writing about brain-machine-interface (BMI) technology, and brain-machine-brain interface technology. Now we have a report of brain to brain communication, which is currently as close as we can come to telepathy.

Actually, the technology is – brain to machine to another machine and then to another brain – technology. Imagine having a computer chip implanted in your brain that can read your brain activity. This information is then transferred to a computer chip implanted in someone else’s brain, who can then access that information.

If this exchange were happening in real time through wireless transfer with sufficient resolution, that would essentially be telepathy.

We’re not quite there yet, but researchers at Duke university have perhaps taken the first steps in this direction. Led by Miguel Nicolelis, They implanted computer chips into rat brains. The “encoder” rat was then run through a maze in which it had to use it’s whiskers to measure the size of a hole. If it could fit through the hole it was trained to then poke its nose through another hole to the left, if it could not fit then it would poke its nose through a hole to the right.

After encoding this information, the information was then transferred to a computer chip in another rat’s brain. That “decoder” rat was run through the same maze, although this time there was no test hole, so it only had the information from the encoder rat to tell it which hole to poke its nose through. The decoder rats showed “similar behavior” to the encoder rats.

This is preliminary research, but promising. So far there does not seem to be any theoretical or technological hurdles in the way of developing mature BMI with all that this implies. Rather, it seems all that is necessary is continued incremental advances – higher resolution decoding, better chip technology, and more thorough interfaces.

In the abstract to the current study Nicolelis speculates:

These results demonstrated that a complex system was formed by coupling the animals’ brains, suggesting that BTBIs can enable dyads or networks of animal’s brains to exchange, process, and store information and, hence, serve as the basis for studies of novel types of social interaction and for biological computing devices.

We could have thousands of rats wired together forming a biological super computer. Or we could track social behavior by monitoring the brain activity of millions of people simultaneously (although, isn’t this Twitter?).

Speculating about future application is always the most fun, but the most problematic, areas of such research. For now we need to focus on just developing the technology. It might be useless to speculate about needed applications at a time when the technology will be ready for use – many other things might change between now and then.

What we can say now is that brain-machine-interfaces are coming, in all their permutations. How we will use them remains to be seen.

19 responses so far

19 Responses to “Brain to Brain Interface”

  1. yekwahon 01 Apr 2013 at 8:54 am

    Damn you Steve, damn you! I really wanted to believe this. You even had me going for a few seconds before I remembered what day it is where you are (April Fools is over for us here already).

  2. garethjnson 01 Apr 2013 at 9:52 am

    For those interested, the original paper is here http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/130228/srep01319/full/srep01319.html?WT.ec_id=SREP-631-20130301 . I think the most interesting part of this paper was the computational unit that was created by linking the two rats, rather than the creation of the interface itself. The BTBI was more of an incremental technological advance – the technology to read and stimulate brain activity already existed, it just hadn’t been linked to form such an interface before.

    The behavioural trials were run live, with both rats performing the task at the same time in isolated boxes (they even did it over the internet between labs on different continents!). The only cue to decoder rat received was from the encoder’s brain, whereas the encoder received either a light cue, or hole-size cue (they didn’t run any mazes!). The encoder would turn its head left or right depending on the cue, and the decoder was supposed match this behaviour. If it did, both rats received an additional reward.

    Although the BTBI itself was uni-directional (from encoder to decoder), the additional reward provided feedback to the encoder of the decoders performance; if the decoder interpreted the encoder correctly, both received the additional reward. This decoder-to-encoder feedback allowed the behaviour of the Dyad to change depending on the accuracy of the decoder, for example, if the decoder made a mistake, the latency of the encoder’s response in the next trial reduced (if I remember correctly). The authors argue that this constitutes the formation of a “non-Turing” computational unit.

  3. champenoiseon 01 Apr 2013 at 10:02 am

    You know, I bet they can also send the signals over the internet. Do we know more about the neural code now? Who cares, clinical trials! The rejection of implants in the form of gliosis, fluid buildup, the signal loss, still unsolved? Yeah, I guess they’re just going to re-implant every three years or so, until they run out of cortex.

  4. Eric Thomsonon 01 Apr 2013 at 10:11 am

    champenoise wrote “I bet they can also send the signals over the internet.” In one experiment, they did exactly this. They connected the brain of a rat in Brazil with the brain of a rat in the US, using the internet, in real time (the signals took about a quarter second to propagate between rats).

  5. Eric Thomsonon 01 Apr 2013 at 10:14 am

    Truth in advertising, I am biased to favor this work, as I work in the Nicolelis lab. Note I had a fairly detailed discussion of the study over at consciousentities.com.

  6. Steven Novellaon 01 Apr 2013 at 10:20 am


    Cool – I was hoping to interview Nicolelis for the SGU. Could you provide me an e-mail address where I can contact him? (You can send it to snovella -at- theskepticsguide.org) Thanks.

    BTW – this post is not an April Fool’s joke. This is mostly an incremental advance from prior research.

  7. Eric Thomsonon 01 Apr 2013 at 10:39 am

    Steven: done.

    Note this work always reminds me of this beautiful quote from Paul Churchland:

    Now, if two distinct hemispheres can learn to communicate on so impressive a scale [via the corpus callosum], why shouldn’t two distinct brains learn to do it also? This would require an artificial “commissure” of some kind, but let us suppose that we can fashion a workable transducer for implantation at some site in the brain that research reveals to be suitable, a transducer to convert a symphony of neural activity into (say) microwaves radiated from an aerial in the forehead, and to perform the reverse function of converting received microwaves back into neural activation. Connecting it up need not be an insuperable problem…

    Once the channel is opened between two or more people, they can learn…to exchange information and coordinate their behavior with the same intimacy and virtuosity displayed by your own cerebral hemispheres. Think what this might do for hockey teams, and ballet companies, and research teams! If the entire population were thus fitted out, spoken language of any kind might well completely disappear, a victim of the “why crawl when you can fly?” principle. Libraries become filled not with books, but with long recordings of exemplary bouts of neural activity….

    How will such people understand and conceive of other individuals? To this question I can only answer, “In roughly the same fashion that your right hemisphere ‘understands’ and ‘conceives of’ your left hemisphere–intimately and efficiently, but not propositionally [i.e., in a linguoformal representational format].

    Paul M. Churchland (1981). Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes. Journal of Philosophy 78: 67-90.

  8. Logan Blackisleon 01 Apr 2013 at 10:50 am

    My first thought on reading the article, was of how this could be the beginning of the Borg. Heh, perhaps rats, instead of AIs, will become our new overlords? 🙂

    On a more serious note, this technology has so many applications it boggles the mind – virtual reality, memory sharing, more precise psychological evaluations etc. Makes me continually more excited about the future.

  9. petrossaon 01 Apr 2013 at 12:55 pm

    This brings a whole new dimension to NIMBY. NIMB from now on. No way no how no one is ever going to install such a device in my brain or anywhere near my brain. Not In My Brain.

  10. SARAon 01 Apr 2013 at 1:04 pm

    I think I’m going to be a Luddite on this. I just cringe at the idea of
    a. implanting something unnecessary in my brain.
    b. allowing anyone else to see or feel or understand what goes on inside my private mind.
    c. a paranoid future dystopian world when I think about this developing in odd directions.

    This is a sign that I’m getting old, I guess.

  11. BillyJoe7on 01 Apr 2013 at 4:36 pm

    I’m with SARA and petrossa. Do I want to communicate directly with your brain? No, who knows what i might find there to spoil my day. Give me a patch of grass in the shade of an elm tree and a good book. I’m happy enough to read the filtered thoughts of a fellow human being.

  12. tmac57on 01 Apr 2013 at 8:49 pm

    Joining the bandwagon of the last 3 comments,I can’t see how anyone would want to give and receive full access to their thoughts to others without the filter of rationality,civility,privacy…whatever.
    Having said that,most likely there will be useful applications of this technology that we haven’t even dreamed of yet,without the drawbacks of invasion of privacy.

  13. fractalon 01 Apr 2013 at 10:05 pm

    Holy cow! What happened to the science based medicine site?

  14. slipknottinon 01 Apr 2013 at 10:57 pm

    Telepathy seems almost like a waste of this. Is there real value in telepathy in every day life?

    Id much rather have my brain connected to the info on the Internet than some other person

  15. Murmuron 02 Apr 2013 at 5:31 am

    I don’t think we will have full telepathy any time soon, and even then it would only be between people who have chips implanted. I would also think there would be “gates” or somesuch in place to stop random thoughts being transmitted. I think the idea of free thoughts being transmitted to everyone around them is pretty scary and probably one of the biggest breaches of privacy possible.

    I would however love to see technology similar to The Matrix, where knowledge of a field could be “downloaded” into someone else. As someone who has just taken of a fairly complicated job from someone with years of experience, I would have loved to have had a direct download from her brain of the job specifics. The money saved in time spent doing handovers and time spent learning would be immense.

  16. Steven Novellaon 02 Apr 2013 at 7:19 am

    SBM was hit by a bot hack. We had to take it down and fix it, add extra security, change the DNS, etc. It’s back up now.

  17. dandoveron 02 Apr 2013 at 7:31 am

    When the Internet was first being developed, the designers failed to take into consideration myriad different ways people would misuse parts of it with malicious intent. As a result we’ve seen all kinds of viruses and malware take advantage of the lack of security in the protocols and systems that comprise the Internet. If you think getting a computer virus that steals your personal financial information would ruin your day, imagine getting a virus that downloads suicidal or murderous thoughts to your brain. Count me out.

  18. Murmuron 02 Apr 2013 at 8:28 am

    I think the lessons learned from the Internet will inform the use of this technology and we will most likely not have anywhere near the same number of issues. Any new technology will always have its misuses, but ultimately we will construct laws and social norms around it and I think the future is more fascinating for the possibilities presented by this kind of advance.

  19. rocken1844on 02 Apr 2013 at 2:30 pm

    per SARA “allowing anyone else to see or feel or understand what goes on inside my private mind”- that is precisely what evangelical Christians claim god is doing every moment of every day which is supposed to be a positive attribute of god – I take it SARA would disagree

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