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.

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