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WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

As we unlock more secrets of the human brain we are slowly but surely getting better at communicating with each other telepathically.

 

Telepathic communication is nothing new but it’s still in its early years as a technology. The first major telepathic breakthrough came in 2012 when scientists in the US managed to first get two people communicating with each other telepathically, and then more recently researchers created the first telepathic link between a human and a robot, as well as a telepathic link between paralysed people and F-35 fighter aircraft – something that DARPA, the bleeding edge US military research arm is now investing even more money into developing. Now neuroscientists from the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon University in the US have successfully created a three way human brain-to-brain connection that let three people share their thoughts and telepathically play a game of Tetris together.

 

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Furthermore the team behind it think it could be scaled up to one day connect whole communities of people, which would make it the world’s first telepathic social network. And yes, while that might sound far out, from today’s perspective atleast, it’s something even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been thinking about when he unveiled a new project, led by ex-DARPA chief Regina Dugan, to turn Facebook into the world’s first telepathic network. The race is on…

 

A sample screen

 

In order to create the new telepathic network the team used Electroencephalograms (EEGs) that record electrical activity in the brain and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) devices, which can transmit information into the brain.

In 2015, Andrea Stocco, who led the research, and his colleagues, used this equipment to telepathically connect two people together via a brain-to-brain interface. The people then played a 20 questions game together.

An obvious next step was then to try to connect several people together and now Stocco and his colleagues have announced they have achieved this by creating the world’s first brain-to-brain network. The network, which they call BrainNet, allows a small group to play a collaborative Tetris like game.

 

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“Our results raise the possibility of future brain-to-brain interfaces that enable cooperative problem solving by humans using a ‘social network’ of connected brains,” said Stocco.

The technology behind the network is relatively straightforward. The EEGs measure the electrical activity of the brain by using electrodes placed on the skull that can pick up electrical activity in the brain.

A key idea is that people can change the signals their brains produce relatively easily. Brain signals can easily become entrained with external ones, so, for example, watching a light flashing at 15 hertz causes the brain to emit a strong electrical signal at the same frequency. Switching attention to a light flashing at 17 Hz changes the frequency of the brain signal again – in a way an EEG can spot relatively easily.

 

The games “interface”

 

Meanwhile TMS devices can manipulate brain activity by inducing electrical activity in specific areas of the brain which is why they’re often used to treat neurological disorders. For example, a magnetic pulse focused onto the human brains occipital cortex triggers the sensation of seeing a flash of light, known as a phosphene. And it’s this combination – the brain being able to emit electrical signals at specific frequencies, and the TMS creating the “flash” of light that makes the whole system work.

Together, these devices make it possible to send and receive signals directly to and from the brain and nobody has created a network that allows group communication – until now.

 

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Stocco and his colleagues created a network that allows three individuals to send and receive information directly to their brains, and they say the network is easily scalable and limited only by the availability of EEG and TMS devices.

The experiment connected three people – two so called “senders,” two people who were able to send information, and one “receiver,” a person who was able to receive and send information, all in separate rooms who were unable to communicate via any other conventional means. Together the trio had to solve a Tetris-like game in which a falling block had to be rotated so that it fits into a space at the bottom of the screen.

The two senders, wearing EEGs, were both able to see the full screen and the game was designed so the shape of the descending block fitted into the bottom row if it was rotated by either 180 degrees or if it wasn’t rotated at all. The senders then had to decide what action to take in order to get the block to fit and then telepathically broadcast that information to the receiver.

To do this the senders varied the signal their brains produced. If the EEG picked up a 15 Hz signal from their brains, it moved a cursor toward the right hand side of the screen. When the cursor reached the right hand side, the device then sent a signal to the receiver to rotate the block. And the senders could control their brain signals by staring at LEDs on either side of the screen – one flashing at 15 Hz and the other at 17 Hz.

 

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The receiver, who was attached to both an EEG and a TMS, meanwhile had a different task. The receiver could only see the top half of the Tetris screen so was able to see the block but not how it should be rotated. The receiver then received signals from the senders saying either “Rotate” or “Do not rotate.”

The signals consisted of a single phosphene “flash” to indicate the block must be rotated or no flash of light to indicate that it should not be rotated. The data rate of the communication was also low – just one bit per interaction. Having received data from both senders the receiver would then perform the required action and play the game.

However, crucially the game also allowed for another round of interaction. The senders could see the block falling and were able to determine whether the receiver had made the right call or not, and transmit the next course of action – whether to rotate it or not – in another round of communication.

This apparently let the researchers have some fun. In some of the trials they deliberately changed the information from one sender to see if the receiver can determine whether to ignore it, and that introduced an element of error often reflected in real live situations.

 

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One of the questions researchers wanted to investigate was whether humans can work out what to do when the data rates are so low. And it turns out humans, being social animals, can distinguish between the correct and false information using the brain-to-brain protocol alone. That interesting work now paves the way for more complex, larger telepathic brain-to-brain human networks.

The team said the information travels across a bespoke network set up between three rooms in their labs, but also said there’s no reason why the network couldn’t be extended to the internet, allowing participants around the world to collaborate in future experiments.

“A cloud based brain-to-brain interface server could direct information transmission between any set of devices on the brain-to-brain interface network and make it globally operable through the Internet, thereby allowing cloud-based interactions between brains on a global scale,” Stocco and his colleagues say. “The pursuit of such brain-to-brain interfaces has the potential to not only open new frontiers in human communication and collaboration but also provide us with a deeper understanding of the human brain.”

So there you have it – it’s difficult to follow, it’s the stuff of science fiction, but increasingly telepathy is becoming, albeit slowly, science fact, and it points to a future where we ourselves are the network. Freaky!

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, award winning Futurist and Founder of the 311 Institute, a global futures think tank working between the dates of 2020 and 2070, is described as "The Adviser behind the Advisers." Regularly featured on AP, CNBC, Discovery and RT, his ability to identify, track, and explain the impacts of hundreds of revolutionary emerging technologies on global culture, industry and society, is unparalleled. Recognised for the past five years as one of the world's foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an international speaker who helps governments, investors, multi-nationals and regulators around the world envision, build and lead an inclusive future. A rare talent Matthew sits on the Technology and Innovation Committee (TIAC) for Centrica, Europe’s largest utility company, and his recent work includes mentoring XPrize teams, building the first generation of biocomputers and re-inventing global education, and helping the world’s largest manufacturers envision, design and build the next 20 years of devices, smartphones and intelligent machines. Matthew's clients are the who’s who of industry and include Accenture, Bain & Co, BCG, BOA, Blackrock, Bentley, Credit Suisse, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deloitte, Du Pont, E&Y, HPE, Huawei, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, McKinsey, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Samsung, Sopra Steria, UBS, the USAF and many others.

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