University of Washington researchers have performed the first noninvasive human-to-human brain interface, allowing one person to control the hand of another via the internet.

Researcher Rajesh Rao sent brain signals to Andrea Stocco, who was at the other end of the University campus causing Stocco’s finger to move on a keyboard at the right time.

Credit: University of Washington

The technology uses electrical brain records and a form of magnetic stimulation to record and transfer those signals to another person.

uw_brain2brain_interface_experiment[1]Rao played a simple video game with his mind, when he was supposed to fire a cannon at a target he imagined moving his right hand, being careful not to actually move his hand, instead a cursor on his screen moved to the “fire” button. That signal was then transmitted via the internet to Stocco, who wore noise-canceling earbuds and wasn’t looking at a computer screen, he then involuntarily moved his right index finger to push the space bar on the keyboard, firing the cannon at the correct time.

“It was both exciting and eerie to watch an imagined action from my brain get translated into actual action by another brain,” Rao said. “This was basically a one-way flow of information from my brain to his. The next step is having a more equitable two-way conversation directly between the two brains.”

Chantel Prat, assistant professor in psychology at the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, and Stocco’s wife and research partner who helped conduct the experiment said “There’s no possible way the technology that we have could be used on a person unknowingly or without their willing participation.”

Of course these are vague claims, no evidence was provided that Stocco could block his finger movements intentionally, even if the technology at it’s current stages couldn’t do more than move someones finger, the technology is sure to advance, and perhaps already has in some ways.

Their research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the UW, the National Institutes of Health, and not surprisingly the U.S. Army Research Office.

Could the military interest in this technology be the result of a more worrying or sinister agenda to control humans?

military-braincontrolIn 2008 the U.S. Army awarded a $4 million contract to begin developing “thought helmets” that would allow secure and silent communication between troops. Ultimately, the Army hopes the project will “lead to direct mental control of military systems by thought alone.”

The U.S. Army and now DARPA have also been funding a project at Arizona State University to allow remote control of brain activity using a transcranial pulsed ultrasound technology, the aim is to manipulate the brain to enhance warfighting capabilities

“When people ask what this kind of device could do, I ask them what their brain does for them,” Tyler tells Danger Room. “The brain serves all the functions of your body, and if you knew the neuroanatomy, then you can start to regulate each one of those functions.”

Theoretically the helmets could send commands to troops brains directly, and with the ultrasound manipulation, refusing orders may become hard, if not impossible, regardless of the willingness of the soldier, perhaps even a confusion between the origin of thoughts: if a thought was their own thought or someone else’s.

The conclusion on the University of Washington website states:

The results suggest that information extracted noninvasively from one brain using EEG can be transmitted to another brain noninvasively using TMS to allow two persons to cooperatively solve a task via direct brain-to-brain transfer of information. The next phase of the study will attempt to quantify this transfer of information using a larger pool of human subjects.

Previously researchers at Duke University have demonstrated brain-to-brain communication between two rats, thousands of miles apart.

Dr. Miguel Nicolelis pointed out that, in theory, such a system is not limited to a pair of brains, but instead could include a network of brains, which he named a “brain-net.” Researchers at Duke and at the ELS-IINN are now working on experiments to link multiple animals cooperatively to solve more complex behavioral tasks.

“We cannot even predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a brain-net. In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves.” Such a connection might even mean that one animal would incorporate another’s sense of “self,” - Dr. Miguel Nicolelis

So far the technology is only being developed by the Military and University Projects.  Similar devices which only read brain signals for video games and computer control are already available.

Does connecting up rats, humans and other creatures brains to create a supercomputer seem like a good idea?

If it becomes widely accepted in the future, whoever is in charge of the technology, could control those using it in some ways, without them knowing. For example if Coca Cola invested in the technology used for playing a video game then you might find yourself craving some Coca Cola, or perhaps you’d start warming to a presidential candidate shortly before an election.

How do we know these technologies won’t be abused and if it were, how would we know?

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