Even after being the most efficient existing species in this world, our communication system is still not up to the mark. We face hurdles while communicating our thoughts -as simple as giving directions to someone while driving or sharing any experience, but what if we surpass this barrier where we don’t need words for effective communication, but our brain does all the work. For years, this digital medium of communication using brain was restricted to the fiction movies only but embraced yourselves, now it’s making its way to the real world.
A recent study published in Scientific Reports highlighted the work of such researchers at Washington University, who developed a device named “Brain Net,” which is “the first multi-person non-invasive direct brain-to-brain interface for collaborative problem-solving.” Brain net involves the collaboration of three human brains that communicate directly via their thought system.
It isn’t the first example of brain-to-brain communication. In 2014, a team from Spain made a setup that allowed two participants that were located 2,000 miles apart, to play a game, and the winning percentage was 80%.
For the research, led by Dr. Rajesh P.D. Rao, three participants were hooked up. Two senders with the EEG (electroencephalographs) and one receiver with TMS (transcranial magnetic simulations). EEG reads and decodes the neural activity of the sender, and TMS encodes that useful information back into the brain of the Receiver.
Linxingg Preston Jiang sets up Savannah Cassis as a sender for this experiment. (credit: Mark Stone/ U. Washington)
The team led the three people to play a Tetris-like-game, where the only sender could see the screen, and the Receiver has to play the game by interpreting the information received from the sender through TMS. For rotating a block appeared on the screen, the sender would focus on a high-frequency light source of 17hz and would stare on a low-frequency light source of 15hz, if the block didn’t need to be rotated. The Receiver would interpret what kind of light they are focusing on and would rotate the block accordingly.
In 13 out of 16 trials, Receiver correctly rotated the block and cracked the game with 81 percent accuracy. Andrea Stocco, an assistant professor of psychology at UW, explained the experiment in a statement.
“To deliver the message to the Receiver, we used a cable that ends with a wand that looks like a tiny racket behind the Receiver’s head. This coil stimulates the part of the brain that translates signals from the eyes,” Stocco said. “We essentially ‘trick’ the neurons in the back of the brain to spread around the message that they have received signals from the eyes. Then participants have the sensation that bright arcs or objects suddenly appear in front of their eyes.”
In the second round, after the Receiver makes the decision, both the sender and receiver can see the output of the Receiver’s action, and the sender can check if the block has placed correctly; if not, Receiver has given a chance to rectify the error.
The researchers also check the sender’s learning ability to rely on a more reliable sender. They purposely tricked Receiver by flipping one of the sender’s response in 10 out of the 16 trial- so that a “Yes, rotate the block” suggestion would be given to the Receiver as “No, don’t rotate the block,” and vice versa; representing it as a bad sender. With time, the Receiver learned to rely only on the information of the excellent sender instead of being neutral.
All these results point in the direction of a progressive future where human brains can collaborate digitally for a common cause and open gate of enormous possibilities for researchers.
Future of Brain Net Technology
The neuroscientist is aiming for a future of more developed human beings who don’t need a physical medium for communication, but electrical impulses can do the work. However, the level of complexity of information is still the same binary i-e simple yes or no. Still, scientists are working towards the advancement of a system from binary to stochastic using functional MRI to deal with more complex statements.
The ultimate goal of this technology is the development of “Internet of Brains that can solve a common problem,”; collaborating human brains using a social network for a common cause.
But not everyone is the advocate of this technology, as it has come with a price to be paid. We-the humans of this evolving digital era will pay this price by the trade of our privacy. This new technology will open the way to breach the data even present in one’s mind, compromising individual autonomy, which can turn into an alarming situation if not dealt properly.
Researchers must consult with the Neuroethics team first to discuss all the preventive measures that should be taken to ensure that people’s privacy is respected before introducing this technology in the market.
“But for now, this is just a baby step. Our equipment is still expensive and very bulky, and the task is a game,” Rao says. “We’re in the ‘Kitty Hawk’ days of brain interface technologies: We’re just getting off the ground.”
Now, it is time for us to decide the dimensions where we want humanity to go. Are we ready to pay such a heavy price for just a fancy way to communicate?
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Sabeeka Zafar is a Bioinformatician-to-be with a passion to be a significant part of the great revolution in the near future in the field of Bioinformatics specifically and that of Science generally. Sabeeka is a social activist, enjoys working with people for the betterment of the society and loves to read and to write.