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9/5/2014
09:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Geekend: Your Computer Will Help You Read Minds

Brain-to-brain communication is now possible through a PC.

Quick! What am I thinking? If you guessed "French fries" you are a telepath or you are using new technology developed by a team of neurologists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The age of telepathy is here. Well, not quite telepathy, but brain-to-brain communication over thousands of miles is now possible with the help of some sophisticated equipment and the Internet.

The team of neurologists were able to use electroencephalogram (EEG) and image-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to transmit thoughts from France to India. What does that mean? The scientists had people think about a short word (like "hola" or "ciao"). The technology was able to transmit that thought to a computer and the computer translated that thought through the Internet to someone else. The technology was then used to put that thought into the head of another person. They could do this all with only a 15% failure rate. This is no joke.

Of course, you can't do this walking around yet. It requires some pretty bulky equipment, particularly on the side of the computer inserting a thought into your brain (the TMS). We've been pretty good at translating human thought into computer instructions for quite some time. We've been able to use the brain to guide a cursor since 2006, for example. Here's a great video showing one system (unrelated to the study) for turning thoughts into computer actions. It allowed a woman with no control of her limbs to feed herself for the first time in 15 years.

In the brain-to-brain communication study they used a similar concept of translating the brain into something a computer could understand. The trick was then translating it back from the computer to another person. They used TMS. What is it? I'll let these folks explain, again from a non-related study:

Although you can see that the chip that translated thoughts into computer language fits inside the brain, we can't yet do that with the TMS.

Still, it is pretty darn impressive. Sit in the right chair with the right piece of equipment and you can hear a friend's thoughts from around the world.

Right now, those thoughts are pretty simple, mostly single words. But we're getting really good at translating thoughts into something computers can understand. Here's a video from 2011 where we literally translated "the mind's eye" of a person while they watched movie clips. The picture on the left is what they saw. The picture on the right is what we were able to download from their brain to show what they "saw" in their head. Obviously, we weren’t getting 100% perfect pictures, but we're getting better at doing this.

Presumably, with enough time, we could perfect both the picture someone is seeing and how to translate that into the brain of another person. If we could do that, words would be easy.

Slightly more frighteningly, if we could teach someone to move a robotic arm, we could probably teach them to move someone else's arm if they were attached via the right equipment.

Basically, we're not that far away from being able to not only refine this but miniaturize it. And when we do, we have Telepathy-Over-Internet-Protocol (TOIP). It would allow us to speak to each other, share thoughts and memories, and even control our devices (and possibly each other) with our minds.

Sounds fun, but honestly, it doesn't sound commercially viable right away. Realistically, if you want to send words and pictures over the Internet, Skype is a lot cheaper, easier, and less invasive. For all but the most disabled people, voice command makes more sense for controlling devices.

Sadly, the first viable use for a project like this is probably the military where the advantages are obvious. If you could allow troops to communicate silently they could maintain stealth. You could also transmit intelligence instantly back to headquarters through the eyes of a person on the ground. Troops could coordinate actions silently and show each other what they see in order to fire around "blind" corners.

A host of soldiers sporting small chips in their brains and wearing helmets that stimulate their brains with magnets in order to share thoughts is entirely within the realm of possibility and not even something we've seen in science fiction.

Here's hoping we can move beyond military use to forms of communication and ways to help people. For instance, I could see this as a way to help people in remote areas perform medical exams and possibly surgery through the exchange of thoughts and body movements. If such equipment were implanted in construction and mining helmets it could be used for search and rescue to determine the location and condition of workers trapped after a collapse. It could even be implanted in helmets for driving cars and motorcycles to help drivers navigate safely.

Of course, that means wearing a bulky helmet or even having a chip in your brain. That's not for everyone. And that's assuming you actually want to share thoughts with someone else. That's a very intimate moment. It could very well lead to moments like this:

In other words, this is a useful but dangerous new technology for the human race. What do you think? Should we develop it? Should we use it as a weapon? Would you use it to communicate with family or friends (assuming it could be turned on and off like a phone)? Or is it just too dangerous or intimate for you? Leave a comment.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2014 | 3:46:28 PM
Insidious and amazing
This tech sounds amazing. not only for it's wonderous possiblities to making universal translation so you could think to someone and they recieve it in their own language, Or being able to control a helper robot, but also for the other more insidious ways to use such a thing. Never mind the military having it, what if got into the hands of terrorists? Or if thetech got good enough so it could trasmit enmasse to a crowd encouraging them to riot, or buy the latest gadget. Save us from the marketers if that ever happens.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/10/2014 | 12:27:03 AM
Re: Bad sign
@SaneIT- yes, the push scenario of the restaurant is a nightmare. That's why I like that it need bulky equipment now. For now, it is more like Skype than Minority Report.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/10/2014 | 12:25:51 AM
Re: Bad sign
@lightmike2- The most interesting thing about your comments is that I think some of those things sound great and some sound terrible. I suspect that is true of everyone, but that each person reading it has a different set they like and hate.
lightmike2
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lightmike2,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/9/2014 | 3:44:29 PM
Re: Bad sign
The far reaching benefits have to do with pulling language out of the mix and transmitting pure thought into a mind that can read the pure thought.  We think, we then interpret our thoughts into a language so we can speak it, but how much is lost in that translation of sorts?  Our language vocabulary varies from individual to individual and the way some expresses thought verbally is very limited.  Throw in that mix that what we think, we may run through various social filters, before we even speak or choose to speak.  What if a therapist could understand what an autistic patient is thinking?  What if a judge can understand what a criminal is thinking?  What if a CIA agent can understand what a captured terrorist is thinking?   What if a wife no longer has to ask what their husband who is smiling and staring off into space is thinking?  This kind of technology could become a virus to our civilization.  
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
9/9/2014 | 10:11:16 AM
Re: Bad sign
@david. I think we will keep that idea on the sci fi world for now.  I really forgot about the privacy involve in such methods
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
9/9/2014 | 7:10:43 AM
Re: Bad sign
Yes I suppose the pull side could work as long as you have a stored set of data that people are going to want to download into their brains.  This is looking much like The Matrix "I know kung fu" scene but I wonder how much would be retained.  The worry about it being a push technology though is that someone may start pushing catchy jingles into my brain as I'm walking past their restaurant or convince me that they sell the best product around while I'm in a store and I have no idea where that thought came from. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2014 | 1:47:40 PM
Re: Bad sign
@pedrogonzalez- Oh geeze, i hope we never try to use it in a court. Forcing people's brains open so we know what they know seems an impossible invasion even in the name of security and law and order.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2014 | 1:45:10 PM
Re: Bad sign
@danielcawrey- Thanks for the comment. I do wonder exactly how much more productive we actually would be. Is thought communication that much faster than verbal? I don't know the answer. But I'd love to get to find out.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2014 | 1:44:10 PM
Re: Bad sign
@SaneIT- Well, ideally, it will work like any phone, right? Push and pull. People call you and you call other people.

But let's face it, all of that has to do with who controls it and how much money is on the line.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2014 | 1:42:44 PM
Re: Bad sign
@Gary_el- Just a short subliminal video before your conversation can commence. :)
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