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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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/29/2015 | 1:07:52 PM
Re: Brain-To-Brain Interface: A Bold First Step
@zerox203- I think the light for yes and no light for no makes sense. We use technology to help us interpret stuff all the time. Cars don't have go lights and brake lights. They only have brake lights. That said, you are right that if they don't feel like they can successfully differentiate "yes" and "no" they have a long way to go to get to full sentences. Still, this is a proof of concept, not a full-blown product.
SunitaT0
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SunitaT0,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2015 | 12:17:01 PM
Re: Interesting
The bad thing would be misuse of this tech. I can think of many things in this context. For example, torture? Do you remember Professor X being tortured mentally by Jason Stryker? Mental torture would really take form using this tech, so this would mean newer laws made due to this tech. 
SunitaT0
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SunitaT0,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2015 | 12:11:11 PM
Re: Interesting
@Nomii: Brain controlled tech would have amazing consequences, both good and bad. If there is a thought mapping helmet created, we can see what babies are thinking about this world when they can't speak, we would know from their expressions what line they are thinking along, but to know their actual thoughts? This tech would be a first day buy for me. 
SunitaT0
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SunitaT0,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2015 | 12:05:02 PM
Re: Interesting
@PedroGonsalez: Nice thought, unless I want to spend sleepless nights. Teenagers think about random stuff all the time and cannot focus on one thing. As a parent I think I would try to understand them first before actually cheating my way through using the thought mapping tech. If I can't control my teenage son/daughter then I am the bad parent. Most people wouldn't have this tech and still their teenage kids would come out okay, and if you have one and your teenage kids don't turn out okay, who will be to blame? 
SunitaT0
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SunitaT0,
User Rank: Ninja
9/29/2015 | 12:01:14 PM
Re: Hacking
If zombies aren't real, they soon will be! Zombification through brain hacking! Tech is really interesting, as long as it doesn't give birth to mass murderers and remotely controlled hitmen. An antenna in the brain? C'mon! This tech needs to be safe. 
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
9/28/2015 | 3:01:12 PM
Hacking
The tech behind "mind-controlled devices" is pretty amazing, and hopefully will be broadly available soon.
I wonder if the big AV companies should start working on a countermeasure already in case we ingest a trojan or a rat program, and our thoughts are about to be hacked.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
9/28/2015 | 11:04:58 AM
Re: Interesting
@Pedro, that might be a little overkill for your kids. I'm not really sure I want to know the thoughts of my 12 year old daughter. There are other ways to find out if she really did her homework or not.

I'm not sure that "honest" a connection to anyone is really the best idea. I like it when someone says "Nice Shot!" on the golf course when it really wasn't. :-)

I might make an exception for politicians though.

Totally agree on disability front though. Would be a Godsend for some of those poor people.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
9/27/2015 | 12:43:02 PM
Re: Interesting
I think such technology will really help those individuals with physical disabilities, they will be able to contribute to society once more.  I think for parents this device is a miracle. Can you imagine parents who struggle to understand their teenage children.  Now they will be able to understand because they will be able to read their thoughts, it will save a lot of time and drama.  Any parents would like to volunteer?   
nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
9/27/2015 | 4:20:52 AM
Re: Interesting

@David you are right. I think a lot of research is pending and needs to be carried out in this field. In one of the discussion earlier I pointed out in a forum that is it possible to traslate a human brain waves and put it in a pictoral form on a big screen so you can see what a man is thinking and you do not need to ask a person what is his opinion when every thing is evident on the screen. I think its a far fetched idea but if proper research is done the day is not far when we will be seeing it as a reality.

nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
9/27/2015 | 4:16:02 AM
Re: Interesting

@Terry you are right. While going through these sites archives I came across a discussion on this very subject and people where discussing about the implication of translating brain waves and calculating the data which is saved in the concious and sub concious of a human brain. At that time it was seem a hypotheitical discussion but now it is more closer to a reality then ever before. Agreat leap indeed.

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