Brain-To-Brain Interface: A Bold First Step - InformationWeek
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9/25/2015
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Brain-To-Brain Interface: A Bold First Step

Two experiments in reading and translating brainwaves have allowed researchers to help an injured man walk, and enabled others to read minds from over a mile away.

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Quick! What am I thinking?

If researchers at the University of Washington have anything to say about it, you'll soon know because I'll be able to transfer my thoughts to you over the Internet. And if that's not enough cool for one week, researchers at University of California, Irvine, have helped a man walk after a spinal cord injury by translating his thoughts into movement for his legs.

We're getting closer than ever to decoding and using human thought in all sorts of new technologies.

Let's start with telepathy. To be 100% accurate, telepathy isn't the right word. When we think of telepathy, at least in a sci-fi sense, it is transmitting thoughts or images directly from one brain to another. In the University of Washington study, the Internet was the conduit between two brains.

[ There are more dangerous things to do with the brain. Read Predicting Your Future By Scanning Your Brain. ]

The researchers connected volunteers over a mile apart via a special cap and an Internet connection and asked them to play 20 Questions. One volunteer would be shown a picture of an object. Another volunteer over a mile away would send a question via a touchscreen to the first volunteer. The electroencephalography (EEG) cap on the first volunteer translated "yes" or "no" answers back to the guessing volunteer. A special device would translate the answer and, using a signal to stimulate a part of the brain, would "send" the answer to the second volunteer's brain. They could then ask more questions until they could make a guess.

The volunteers were able to guess the object 72% of the time, versus only 18% during control rounds.

Here it is in action:

As you can see, it is still a rather slow process. Of course, it works mostly by pushing a cursor in our mind, than really processing language. So there's a long way to go, but this is believed to be the first brain-to-brain connection made through language.

Previously, the same research team was able to connect two people using similar EEG caps to allow one person to move the body of another person.

University of Washington researchers used this experimental rig to allow a person to control the hand of another person from a distance.

(Image: University of Washington)

University of Washington researchers used this experimental rig to allow a person to control the hand of another person from a distance.

(Image: University of Washington)

The key for both the movement and the language is to refine the signal. These experiments are both proof of concept, but they have a long way to go to be truly useful.

How useful could it be? An experiment at UC Irvine made a man walk again after seven years of paralysis. The concept is fairly simple. We know that the brain sends signals to the muscles to move. When the spine is injured, it cuts off those signals, but it doesn't stop the brain from being able to make those signals. So, if you can send those signals via another route, they should work.

UC Irvine researchers needed to locate the part of the brain that controlled the man's walking so they had him "walk" using a virtual reality game until they could capture the signals. Then, using similar EEG technology, they captured and transmitted those brain signals through electrodes into the man's muscles.

This is what it looks like:

Sure, it is a bit jerky and he needs a walker. But this is a man taking his first steps since a horrible accident. The researchers will probably be able to refine the signals over time. They are looking to expand the trial from a single person to 30 people. It represents an amazing opportunity to bring mobility back to people who have lost it.

What else can this technology do? For starters, I'd imagine it could replace our phones. A little brain implant (or funny hat) and a WiFi signal is all you'd need once we learned to parse the language more completely.

(Image: Andrew Rich/iStockphoto)

(Image: Andrew Rich/iStockphoto)

I could also see this being used to replace typing and even voice activation on computers. Do you think faster than you type? I do. Imagine that big report you spent all night writing simply appearing on the page because you had a computer hooked to a skull cap.

This is one way to make artificial limbs. We've seen it already happen. We actually think we can refine them to the point we can restore sense of touch. Sending signals from the brain to the computer was one step. Now, sending them back to the brain is the next step.

Of course, we've seen cars get hacked. Imagine if your thoughts were hacked, or your artificial limbs were hacked. I mean, someone is going to do it, if only to make someone dance to "Uptown Funk." It is a frightening future, but I suspect one which people would be willing to face to get their mobility back.

How far away are we on this? Probably depends on what you want to do with it. We have decades probably before we are able to refine the walking capabilities. First the trial has to expand, and then it needs approval. Then someone has to learn to mass produce it and incorporate it into basic therapy. We're also far away on telepathy as a communication device.

But we are starting to see more mind-controlled devices. Perhaps we'll see mind-to-computer technology advance in the next few years, so we can think about producing it for some specialty industries. No matter what, it has a promising future, so long as the security concerns can be worked out.

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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Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Ninja
10/10/2015 | 10:18:47 AM
Re: Brain-To-Brain Interface: A Bold First Step
@Broadway    Yes, that would be amazing. Howver, my bet would be that their thinking is a lot deeper than humans give them credit for. I have a feeling that cats, along with other animals, are more emotional and intelligent than we realize. Perhaps, such technology used between animals and humans could confirm or deny my suspicions.
nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
10/9/2015 | 11:46:19 PM
Re: Brain-To-Brain Interface: A Bold First Step

@vnewman2 I agree with your thought. In same context where we can just see into the hidden chambers of the b rain and get the information there. It can be a great help to solve some unsolved criminal mysteries. We can extract the information from a person without his consent and we can caught the culprit and innocent will not be given undue punishment. My be I am talking a way ahead right now but still feel the good aspects of this tech if can be developed to its true potential. What is your opinion?

nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
10/9/2015 | 11:37:42 PM
Re: Interesting

@Sunita T0 absolutely. I think its not only children we are interested in but people of all ages. We want to know what will be the feeling of human beings and to some extant animals as well. We can only see their reactional behaviour but what generates that reaction is a big question. This tech will give us some unanswered question which can further researched to increse our knowledge and helping our generations to come. What do you say?

nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
10/9/2015 | 11:32:45 PM
Re: Interesting

@Sunita I agree with you there. I think that the child behaviour takes sudden transformation s his age changes. His mental approach towards things also differ with passage of time. He at occasions be pesimistic and on other optimistic. He can be introvert on some thing while act as extrovert on other. I think understanding a child is thye biggest challenge. But it can be done if he shows a bit of maturity in his decisions so you can understand his thoughts better. I believe you concern is genuine and it will be a great help if we can see in to their mind when there is still some time so we can ammend their behaviours.

Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2015 | 3:58:03 PM
Re: Interesting
Angelfuego, imagine a device that "dials in" to your cat's or dog's optic nerves and allows your brain to receive those signals, so you're essentially seeing what they're seeing. I would take that approach, versus knowing their thoughts. I can't see their thoughts being much deeper than, that shoe looks tasty, or that corner needs a fresh peeing, or I don't like the looks of that mailman.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2015 | 12:29:45 PM
Re: Interesting
This brain to brain interface practice might be able to help understand how people with disabilities think and perhaps assist them. I am curious to see how far researchers go with this.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2015 | 12:27:59 PM
Re: Interesting
@ Sunita, Now that would be awesome! If there was a thought mapping helmet created, I would also love to find out exactly what thoughts and images are floating around in my baby's head. I also would love to be able to find out the thoughts running through my dog's head, but I guess we will have to wait a long time for that. It may sound silly, but I am sure some animal lovers and I wonder if it would be possible to engage in brain to brain interface with our pet dog or cat?
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2015 | 12:23:33 PM
Re: Brain-To-Brain Interface: A Bold First Step
At first the thought of "brain to brain interface," seemed a little mind boggling to me and a little scary. However, when I continued to read the article, I think this is an amazing first step that could transform lives and manifest miracles.  I am especially intrigued about how this can help people that are paralyzed.  I look forward to learning more as more steps and research takes place regarding this topic.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
9/30/2015 | 10:38:32 AM
Re: Brain-To-Brain Interface: A Bold First Step
@Dave,

Well put. The fact that even one step in the process truly involves a computer correctly interpreting human brain signals (which it does) makes it amazing. The '20 questions' angle just makes it seem a little juicier than it might be otherwise. It could easily be 'think of a number 1-5' - 'is it five?' 'no" is it four?'', etc. and be using identical technology. The computer has no awareness that we're thinking about Tiramisu. My main point bringing this up is concern that those lacking understanding will jump to false conclusions - like those who think 'killer robots' when we say 'machine learning'. This could lead to some great things, though.
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2015 | 7:25:02 PM
Re: Brain-To-Brain Interface: A Bold First Step
This is completely mind-blowing to me (pun-intended) but when you get right down to it, with the advent of modern technology, it was a natural evolution.  Brain waves are merely are merely data that gets interpreted at some sort of "terminal" in the body.  So it makes sense that there would be a way to harness that information and interpret it using a different means.  But still...wow!
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