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What is the Brain-Machine Interface
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The first human-to-human, brain-to-brain noninvasive interface has been created by researchers at the University of Washington. The system allows one researcher to remotely control the hand of another researcher, across the internet, merely by thinking about moving his hand. The researchers are already looking at a two-way system, to allow for a more “equitable” telepathic link between the two human brains, and the telepathic communication of complex information.
Despite the massive and mostly-not-understood complexity of the human brain, the UW brain-to-brain interface is actually quite simple, relying on tools that are regularly used in the fields of medicine and brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). The first human brain (the sender) is connected to a computer via an EEG-based BCI. The second human brain (the receiver) is connected to another computer via a Magstim transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) machine ? the same kind of TMS setup that has been somewhat successful in treating depression, and other mental maladies. When the sender plays a game and thinks about firing a cannon at a target, the EEG picks it up, sends the signal across the internet to the second computer, and the TMS stimulates the region of the receiver’s motor cortex that controls hand movement. This causes the receiver’s index finger to twitch, firing the cannon and blowing up the target. This process is almost instantaneous.
TMS is a lot like transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which we have written about extensively. Where tDCS passes an electrical current through your brain, affecting the neurons that the electrons travel through, TMS uses electromagnetic induction to create a similar effect. Both tDCS and TMS can be used to either stimulate regions of the brain, useful for brain-to-brain interfaces or increasing the activity of regions of the brain associated with depression, or to reduce the activity of a region, which might help with the treatment of other conditions, such as Parkinson’s. Like tDCS, TMS is completely noninvasive, and so far it appears to be completely safe.
The University of Washington (UW) researchers, led by Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco, have basically connected two quite simple and well-understood systems into a novel and slightly terrifying human-to-human interface. It is very similar to Harvard’s human-to-mouse interface, except they used focused ultrasound (FUS) instead of TMS to trigger the motor cortex. That the UW setup works isn’t all that surprising ? the main thing is that that, for the first time, a human is on the receiving end, which raises some interesting ethical and moral issues.
Chantel Prat, another researcher involved with the work, is quick to try and dispel any concerns. “I think some people will be unnerved by this because they will overestimate the technology,” Prat says. “There’s no possible way the technology that we have could be used on a person unknowingly or without their willing participation.” This is an overly simplistic way of looking at it, though. Yes, the current setup requires both users to be fully consenting ? but in the future, it’s not hard to imagine wireless implants that allow for full telepathy and perhaps a limited range of remotely triggered actions. (See: Brown University creates first wireless, implanted brain-computer interface.) As always with technology, we don’t need to worry so much about the hardware itself ? but rather how it might be subverted, once a significant number of people have brain-to-brain interfaces installed.
Moving forward, Rao and Stocco are now working on transmitting more complex information between two human brains. This could be done fairly simply with encoded pulses ? think brain-to-brain Morse code ? or they could go the complex route and try to stimulate the brain into creating actual images and thoughts. There’s still a lot of work to be done to decode the human brain, so it will be very interesting to see how future human-to-human brain-to-brain interfaces are implemented.
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