Could This be the First Step to Telepathic Communication?

An emerging innovation, which is an integration of Medicine, Science, and Technology, is currently in development and almost too technologically interesting and exciting to be true. It is a technology that could potentially not only allow humans to communicate with appliances, and computers using nothing but their thoughts, but also each other…that’s right… mind-reading and telepathic communication. A recent article in The Economist speculated that this innovation could re-define what it means to be human. This is the stuff of science-fiction.

Paralyzed patient using the BrainGate technology to control that robotic arm with her mind.

There is currently already a brain-computer interface in use to help those who are paralyzed regain the use of some of their limbs through the use of electrodes, and conductors, that can be used to establish electrical connections through non-metal objects, and substances in this case muscles and nerves. Since 2014, 13 people who were paralyzed have had a system called BrainGate, developed at Brown University, implanted into their brains, successfully enabling them to regain control of some of their limbs. Over three thousand people already have implants which utilize this technology to help with their hearing, converting sounds into electrical signals that their brain can process.

Many big tech companies such as Facebook, as well as many Silicon Valley start-ups have already stated their aspirations to have thought-to-text typing. This technology could then have the potential to allow telepathic communication with both humans and computers. We may be moving towards a world of silent communication with no need for the spoken word.

There is huge potential here in the medical industry, such as stimulating the visual cortex to help the blind, or constantly monitoring the brain for signs of mental illness or depression. However, outside of the medical field it is still unlikely that people would be lining up to have technology such as this surgically implanted into their brains. Non-invasive implants have proved less effective and successful than surgical implants because the technology works best when in direct contact with neurons, and not blocked by our thick skulls. There is also the fact that although we know a lot about the brain, the exact workings of the brain, especially when it comes to emotions, thoughts, and memories, are still somewhat of a mystery to scientists.

The cap she’s wearing is an EEG (Electroencephalography) device. It’s able to read brain signals, but there’s a lot of interference since the signals have to travel through the skull.

When you think about the uses of this technology, although interesting and exciting, many of its uses could be done just as well by an Artificially Intelligent personal assistant, and you can already dictate to your phone to type and communicate non-verbally via texts and emojis. Although not the same, for this technology to be approved for public use there needs to be a clear validation as to why it’s useful to society, and at this point it seems more like a fun superpower than something essential to the well-being and development of humankind.

Then there is the question of security and the sheer lack of privacy this could lead to. How would you control who can read your mind? How can you make sure only the person you want to read/receive your thoughts get them? To put it bluntly, if your brain is connected to the internet, or a computer, and sending signals like a computer, what is to stop it from being hacked? It’s an ominous possibility which could lead to the loss of an inner voice, meaning you can no longer run things over in your mind. You could no longer think about what to say before you say it, you would have to find a way to monitor even your initial thoughts in all situations.

Tim Urban wrote a great piece in his blog, Wait But Why, about this idea of Brain-Machines Interfaces (BMIs), and the current work that’s being done concerning BMIs, and their capacity to effectively record our brain activity. He thinks it important to identify that there are three broad criteria when evaluating a type of brain recording tool’s pros and cons:

1) Scale – how many neurons can be simultaneously recorded?

2) Resolution – how detailed is the information the tool receives—there are two types of resolution, spatial (how closely your recordings come to telling you how individual neurons are firing), and temporal (how well you can determine when the activity you record happened?)

3) Invasiveness – is surgery needed, and if so, how extensively?

He concluded that when evaluating any new Brain-Machine Interface you think about those three aspects.

Since the beginning of life on Earth (if you subscribe to the theory of evolution, that is) our brain has been developing in terms of its neural connections and capabilities, enabling us to process a staggering amount of data and information in a matter of seconds. We take information in through our five senses, and our brain goes to town on it.

According to somethings called Metcalfe’s law “the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.” Therefore, technology that is able to work off the huge network of our brains has the potential to be the most valuable telecommunication network imaginable.

On the flip side, there is also a vision of the future where this kind of technology allows for a utopia of telecommunication, and mind-reading that allows us a deeper understanding of our fellow person, a world in which we can communicate our feelings in a more eloquent and clear manner, without the arguably crude use of spoken language.

These Brain-Machine Interfaces will no doubt take some time to develop to any level of sophistication to be affordably available to the public, however an exciting and fast developing area to keep an eye on as it improves and progresses. I mean, if we have any chance of fitting in once the Artificially Intelligent robots hit the scene, we’re going to need an upgrade.