The internet has made it easy for groups to collaborate from pretty much anywhere, but this experimental brain-to-brain "social network" could be the beginning of a whole new ballgame. The new system, dubbed BrainNet, was tested by wiring three test subjects up to machines that let them send messages to each other using just their brainwaves.
Our brains have been communicating with each other for as long as they've existed. One brain can send signals to the fingers to write a letter, for example, which can then be posted so another brain can absorb the message through the eyes. But with the advent of experimental technology enabling direct brain-to-brain communication, things are starting to enter the realm of science fiction.
Using these systems, one brain can modulate its electrical signals to implant messages directly into another brain. Basically, the sender is fitted with an electroencephalogram (EEG), which records electrical activity in the brain through electrodes placed over the head. Those brainwaves are decoded and sent to the recipient, who is equipped with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) gear. This system sends precise magnetic pulses into the brain, which can trigger phantom flashes of light known as phosphenes.
In previous brain-to-brain communication tests by researchers at the University of Washington, participants have been able to make a distant person perform a button press by imagining themselves doing it or guide another person through a virtual maze that they had never seen.
For the new study the researchers introduced a third person to the mix, and the group was tasked with collaborating to play a Tetris-style game. Two people – the senders – can see a screen with a falling block, which may or may not need to be rotated to fit into a gap at the bottom. The catch is, only the third person can control the block, and they can't see the gap. That means they have to rely on the other players telling them to rotate it or not.
All three players are in separate rooms and can only communicate through the BrainNet. To tell the receiver what to do, the senders stare at LEDs on the side of their screen, one flashing at 15 Hz and the other at 17 Hz. The idea here is that looking at these lights causes the person's brainwaves to pulse at that same frequency, and the EEG can pick up on that and interpret a decision – in this case, 15 Hz meant rotate the block and 17 Hz meant don't.
If the system picked up the 15 Hz signal, it would transmit to the TMS equipment to send a pulse into the recipient's brain. This would trigger a flash of light, telling them to rotate the block. The senders could see on their screens whether the receiver had rotated the block, and could choose to tell them to rotate it again if need be (or if they didn't get the message the first time).
Conducting the experiment with five groups of three people, the researchers found that the system worked fairly well, with an average accuracy of about 80 percent. The team says the system is scalable, potentially to the point of a much larger "social network for brains" – an incredible, if somewhat terrifying, prospect.
The research was published online at arXiv.
Source: arXiv via MIT Technology Review
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