Remote-controlled humans could be a step closer after scientists demonstrated a system they claim allows a person to use their brain to control another’s movements.
Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) in the US say they have built the first non-invasive human brain-to-brain interface that can send brain signals for movement over the internet into the body of another person.
They said the technology could pave the way for systems that enable paralysed people to communicate their wishes or that allow a pilot on the ground to help a flight attendant or passenger to land an airplane if the main pilot is incapacitated.
But the researchers, who jokingly compared the technology to a ‘Vulcan mind meld’ from Star Trek, highlighted that the system could only be used by willing participants who were plugged into the equipment.
‘The internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains,’ said UW research assistant professor in psychology Andrea Stocco, who took part in the demonstration. ‘We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain.’
Chantel Prat, UW assistant professor in psychology said, ‘I think some people will be unnerved by this because they will overestimate the technology … There’s no possible way the technology that we have could be used on a person unknowingly or without their willing participation.’
The system combines two established technologies: an electroencephalography (EEG) device that measures brain activity using a cap covered in electrodes, and a magnetic coil placed over the part of the recipient’s brain that controls hand movements to carry out transcranial magnetic stimulation and activate the relevant neurons.
Other US researchers have recently demonstrated brain-to-brain communication between two rats and between a human and a rat. British cybernetics expert Prof Kevin Warwick famously linked his brain to a chip in his wife’s arm over a decade ago.
The UW team, however, said their system was the first to directly link two humans’ nervous systems.
In the experiment, UW professor of computer science and engineering Rajesh Rao wore an EEG cap and watched a computer game that involved firing a cannon at a target.
When he imagined moving his hand to control the game using a keyboard (but without actually moving), the brain signal was transmitted to another room where Stocco was hooked up to the magnetic stimulation device but not watching the game.
The signal caused him to move his finger to hit the keyboard, causing the computer game’s cannon to fire and hit the target. He compared the feeling of his hand moving involuntarily to that of a nervous tic.
Rao said, ‘It was both exciting and eerie to watch an imagined action from my brain get translated into actual action by another brain.
‘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.’
Rao and Stocco next plan to conduct an experiment that would transmit more complex information from one brain to the other. If that works, they then will conduct the experiment on a larger pool of subjects.
Their research was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the UW, the US Army Research Office and the National Institutes of Health.