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Researchers at the University of Washington have performed what may be the first brain-to-brain interface between humans.
In labs on opposite sides of campus, professors Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco donned electrode caps connecting Rao to an electroencephalography machine (which records brainwaves) and Stocco to a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil (which triggers a response from neurons)
Rao watched a screen displaying a simple video game and imagined moving his right hand to push a keyboard button and fire at a target. The electroencephalography machine recorded this brain activity and sent it over the internet to the other lab, where the magnetic coil relayed the instructions to Stocco’s brain. Stocco, who was not watching a screen, moved his hand involuntarily to the keyboard. All this occurred almost instantaneously.
This simple experiment demonstrates groundbreaking possibilities. Similar interfaces have successfully connected two rats, as well as a human and a rat, but this is believed to be the first instance of a brain interface between two humans.
The big ethical question is, will the university’s students attempt to use brain interfacing to cheat on exams? Just kidding, the technology is not that advanced, but holds intriguing potential.
The two researchers in this experiment were connected to computers. But what if the magnetic coil could be implanted inside the skull and received wireless signals? Someone miles away could control–or at least influence–that individual’s physical movement like a puppeteer. The obvious, chilling implication is one person manipulating another like a remote control toy. Possibilities abound for espionage, theft, assassination, and other unsavory acts that one might wish to commit anonymously.
Of course, brain interfaces aren’t necessarily nefarious. A person with a specific skill, like a pilot or technician, could mentally direct a colleague through an operation. Impractical for terrestrial use, but it could prove useful in space colonization, where bringing a specialist on location could take years. Enabling long-distance operation through a proxy would greatly diversify the available skill sets.
The researchers envision less exotic but worthy applications for their work, such as helping people with disabilities could communicate. It will be interesting to watch this technology develop, because the necessary experiments will undoubtedly raise ethical questions about human rights and free will.