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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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David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
9/5/2014 | 11:07:58 AM
Bad sign
If this technology stirs up memories of Star Trek VI, that's a bad sign right there.
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