Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have created what they’re calling the first human brain-to-brain interface
that allowed one researcher to control another’s hand with his mind.
Though it’s not exactly the "Jedi" mind trick, at first glance, the technology may seem a bit too mind blowing to comprehend. But one of the researchers who worked on the project -- Andrea Stocco, a research assistant professor in psychology at UW -- assured Design News in an email that it’s not quite the stuff of science fiction, although he does jokingly call it a “Vulcan mind meld.”
University of Washington researcher Rajesh Rao, left, plays a computer game with his mind, while across campus, researcher Andrea Stocco, right, wears a magnetic stimulation coil over the left motor cortex region of his brain. Stocco’s right index finger moved involuntarily to hit the “fire” button of the game as part of the first human brain-to-brain interface demonstration.
(Source: University of Washington)
“For brain-to-brain technology to become a viable form of ‘mind control,’ the advances to be made in science and technology need to be so great that we cannot even imagine them at the present moment -- and we are not sure it would be possible at all,” he told us. “So, we are not concerned about this application, although we feel that it is certainly positive to begin a discussion on this issue.”
Stocco developed the interface with co-researcher Rajesh Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering and an authority in the field of brain-computer interfaces (BCI), which is part of the technology. The two first thought to develop the technology in 2011, but didn’t have the time to fully embrace the project until last year, Stocco said.
Stocco explained the technology behind the Internet-based interface -- which allowed Rao to use his mind to control the movement of Stocco’s hand to push the “fire” button while the two played a computer game on separate parts of the UW campus.
The technology has two basic parts -- a BCI that “reads” patterns of brain activity through an EEG cap placed on Stocco, detecting the onset of his intention to, in this case, move his right hand. The other part is a computer-brain interface machine that stimulates brain activity -- in this case, in the brain of Rao -- through a TMS machine, inducing electrical activity in neurons by targeting them with a magnetic field that rises and falls quickly.
This computer then communicates with a second machine, which processes the data in the opposite way. You can think of this magnetic field as a sort of ‘magnetic pulse,’ which can ultimately be directed precisely enough to ‘stimulate’ a specific part of the brain (the part that controls the hand). The targeted brain region then behaves much like its electrical impulse was generated by the brain itself, instead of being delivered artificially.
The use of the Internet for the communications protocol allowed the two parts of the interface to communicate in real time, Stocco said.
It takes only a few milliseconds for the signal to travel from one computer to the other, which are on different parts of the campus. In fact, the electrical signal travels faster over the Internet than over human nerves cells; we estimated that the slowest tract covered by the signal was the one from my brain to my hand. The two computers could be anywhere in the world: modern Internet connections are so fast that the signal from one brain would reach the second brain basically in real-time.