University of Washington researchers have successfully confirmed an earlier experiment and demonstrated that a direct brain-to-brain connection via a computer interface is possible between two people. The team from UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences were able to transmit the signals from one participant’s brain over the Internet and use those signals to control the hand motions of another person within a split second of sending that signal. While, perhaps unsurprisingly, the project was part-funded by the Army Research Office and the demonstration involved a video game and blowing stuff up, the team see the future applications of the technology extending to direct information transfer from one person to another, bypassing the inadequacies of language and the possible need to translate altogether.
The team first successfully demonstrated their process around a year ago, and have now confirmed their findings using further participants. The video above gives a good explanation of the setup of the experiment. Basically, one participant, the sender, is hooked to an EEG machine that reads their brain activity. The machine then sends electrical pulses via the Internet to the receiver, “who is wearing a swim cap with a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil placed near the part of the brain that controls hand movements.” The sender is able to send a command to move the hand of the receiver simply by thinking about that hand movement.
The UW study tested three pairs of participants. The sender and the receiver were always in separate buildings about a half mile apart with no interaction other than the digital link between their brains. The team writes, “Each sender was in front of a computer game in which he or she had to defend a city by firing a cannon and intercepting rockets launched by a pirate ship. But because the senders could not physically interact with the game, the only way they could defend the city was by thinking about moving their hand to fire the cannon.” Accuracy differed among the pairs and ranged from 25 to 83 percent. The team found that the incidence of misses was mostly due to sender error in executing the “fire” command.
The team were able to quantify the exact amount of information that was transferred between two participants. They have now received a new $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to continue and extend the research. They hope to decode and transmit more complex brain processes and expand the types of information that can be transferred from brain to brain—things such as concepts, thoughts and rules. They imagine applications such as a brilliant scholar who is not such a great teacher directly imparting their knowledge, or a virtuoso violinist or a surgeon passing on the fine motor processes involved in their craft: complex areas of study and skill where words tend to fail us. The team are also at pains to note that any conceivable unethical use of the technology “would be possible only when the technology is developed to a level that we cannot even currently imagine.” The study has just been published in the journal PLOS One.