Of Three Minds

The age of mindspeak, communicating brain-to-brain, may arrive sooner than expected if recent networking advances pan out.

Researchers at the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon have developed a three-person, brain-to-brain, communication system that utilizes EEGs to detect “signals” from one person and sends magnetic stimulation to the brain of another. 

According to the MIT Technology Review, we may be on the cusp of “cooperative problem-solving by humans using a ‘social network’ of connected brains.”

In Ursula LeGuin’s 1969 classic “The Left Hand of Darkness” the main character Gently Ai can mindspeak with fellow Terrans. Since people could literally see what was on another Terran’s mind they had achieved a straight-talking society devoid of deceit (and duplicitous politicians.) Could mind-to-mind communication eliminate lying and create community in a shared mindspace?

However intriguing the idea, the recent experiment doesn’t go as far as some might think towards live-streaming our thoughts.

A “signal” was detected when the senders looked at or avoided looking at a flashing light. That changed a detectable brainwave frequency which in turn became a signal sent to the receiver, who either saw a flash of light from a magnetic pulse to the skull, or not. And ta-da, communication.

Importantly this wasn’t pattern recognition of complex neuronal nets. Simple signals like this won’t do the trick when it comes to communicating thoughts.

True mind-to-mind communication devices need to be able to do more than just pick up brain waves emanating at skull level. Billions of connected neurons fire in three-dimensional space. Detectors would have to be exquisitely sensitive to pick up and differentiate these subtle nets buried within nets of similar looking electrical signals.

Mental images add more complexity. Where within these incredibly dense neural networks does conscious experience emerge? That remains a mystery to neuroscientists and philosophers of mind alike. Are the patterns of neuron firings that generate the mental image of an apple, for example, even the same from person to person? No one knows.

There’s also a lot of verbal garbage floating around in our minds that one wouldn’t want broadcast to another person. Meditators routinely observe this chatter of personal stream-of-consciousness. A mental filter would be crucial to refining intentional messaging. 

Even then, without the physical cues of face-to-face communication it might be impossible to tell the difference between a sarcastic quip or a simple observation that, say, engaging in Twitter political arguments is a tremendous time suck.

Since the internet already does a good job of connecting across distance and time, is there any advantage to mindspeak? Augmented reality glasses may already be the next step in hands-free communication with MagicLeap’s Lightwear, Microsoft’s HoloLens, Google’s Glass, and the Meta 2 all promising high-definition, seamless, digital communication meshed with the physical world.

Still, the research is intriguing for the detection and transmission of crude brainwaves. The field is developing rapidly and head-mounted detectors, along with some that connect directly to the brain, can now enable users to remote-control robotic arms and move cursors around a screen. That’s a significant step up from mouth or eye-movement controllers for paraplegics and those suffering loss of nerve or muscle control. The U.S. military is even experimenting with mind-controlled robotic soldiers

For now, though, we’re still going to have to rely on instinct, experience, and media to help decipher our fellow human beings. Using technology has its limits. Despite the “connectedness” of social media people already feel increasingly isolated, no matter how many Facebook or Instagram friends they have. 

The amazing biology of skin, muscles, eyes, ears, vocal chords, and hand gestures still hold the best promise of understanding each other with an in-person chat and the art of conversation. In this increasingly polarized, tech-obsessed world a coffee-house or couch may be all the tech we need.

Related Reading: 

Brain Meet Computer- Elon Musk’s NeuralLink

Artificial intelligence – the ultimate tech disruptor some may fear has just gotten another boost. Elon Musk’s new company, NeuralLink, is exploring brain chip implants according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall).

The Verge quotes Musk from a Dubai conference saying, “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.”

So far, brain-computer interfaces focus mainly on medical applications with embedded, electrical stimulus helping reduce seizures. A prototype neural lace dates back to at least June, 2015 when scientists embedded the device in living mice.

Investors, neuroscientists and futurists see cognitive enhancement as the logical next step.

While this may seem far-fetched at the moment it was only a few years ago when pundits said that an electric vehicle company would never thrive. Tesla’s market cap crossed $45B in March.

Doubters said a rocket couldn’t fly into space, launch a satellite, and then land upright back on Earth. SpaceX has put that notion to rest. HyperLoop, space tourism, human life on Mars — none of these are so far-fetched anymore.

I thought I was writing speculative fiction with Ocular Rift, about a near-future where citizens are divided by version and brain-tech Immersives rank highest among them. Now, I’m not so sure. Shameless plug: New chapters were just added. Read for free here and let me know what you think.


Photo: Lieber Research Group, Harvard University