It finally happened! It seems like only yesterday, I was talking about the limitations of Brain to Brain Interfacing (BBI), and how it was still limited to taking place between rats and between a human and a rat. Actually, it was two days ago, but the point remains. In spite of that, after only a few months of ongoing research, scientists have finally performed the first human-to-human interface.
Using a Skype connection, Rajesh Rao, who studies computational neuroscience at the University of Washington, successfully used his mind to control the hand of his colleague, Andrea Stucco. The experiment was conducted on Aug. 12th, less than month after researchers at Harvard used a non-invasive technique and a though to control the movement of a rat’s tail.
This operation was quite simple: In his laboratory, Rao put on a skull cap containing electrodes which was connected to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine. These electrodes read his brainwaves and transmitted them across campus to Stocco who, seated in a separate lab, was equipped with a cap that was hooked up to a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) machine.
This machine activating a magnetic stimulation coil that was integrated into the cap directly above Stocco’s left motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movements of the hands. Back in Rao’s lab, he watched a screen displaying a video game, in which the player must tap the spacebar in order to shoot down a rocket; while in Stocco’s lab. the computer was linked to that same game.
Instead of tapping the bar, however, Rao merely visualized himself doing so. The EEG detected the electrical impulse associated with that imagined movement, and proceeded to send a signal – via the Skype connection – to the TMS in Stocco’s lab. This caused the coil in Stocco’s cap to stimulate his left motor cortex, which in turn made his right hand move.
Given that his finger was already resting over the spacebar on his computer, this caused a cannon to fire in the game, successfully shooting down the rocket. He compared the feeling to that of a nervous tic. And to ensure that there was no chance of any outside influence, the Skype feeds were not visible to each other, and Stucco wore noise cancelling headphones and ear buds.
In the course of being interviewed, Rao was also quick to state that the technology couldn’t be used to read another person’s mind, or to make them do things without their willing participation. The researchers now hope to establish two-way communications between participants’ brains, as the video game experiment just utilized one-way communication.
Additionally, they would like to transmit more complex packets of information between brains, things beyond simple gestures. Ultimately, they hope that the technology could be used for things like allowing non-pilots to land planes in emergency situations, or letting disabled people transmit their needs to caregivers. And in time, the technology might even be upgraded to involve wireless implants.
One thing that should be emphasized here is the issue of consent. In this study, both men were willing participants, and it is certain that any future experimentation will involve people willingly accepting information back and forth. The same goes for commands, which theoretically could only occur between people willing to be linked to one another.
However, that doesn’t preclude that such links couldn’t one day be hacked, which would necessitate that anyone who chose to equip themselves with neural implants and uplinks also get their hands on protection and anti-hacking software. But that’s an issue for another age, and no doubt some future crime drama! Dick Wolf, you should be paying me for all the suggestions I’m giving you!
And of course, there’s a video of the experiment, courtesy of the University of Washington. Behold and be impressed, and maybe even a little afraid for the future: