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It might sound like a scene out of a futuristic Hollywood sci-fi film, but researchers at the University of Washington have just demonstrated that it is theoretically possible to create a brain-to-brain social network. Unlike today’s social networks, these futuristic brain-to-brain social networks would be used for collaborative problem solving. Two or more people, located anywhere in the world, would be able to literally share brain signals in order to accomplish a specific task.
The creation of a brain-to-brain interface
In the case outlined by the University of Washington researchers, the specific task was playing a collaborative, Tetris-like game. The research experiment (as outlined in the paper “A Multi-Person Brain-to-Brain Interface for Direct Collaboration Between Brains”) involved three people, all located in separate rooms. The goal was for two people (the “senders”) to agree on the next move in the Tetris-like game, and then to relay that signal to the “receiver,” located in a completely different room. After making the move, the “receiver” would then transmit a signal back to the “receivers,” letting them know that the move had been made.
At this point, of course, you’re probably wondering: How in the world did they pull off that feat? Well, it all has to do with the unique structure of the human brain. You can think of your brain as just a wet, gooey lump of grey matter. Or, you can think of your brain as a computer, constantly transmitting electrical impulses in order to get things done. If you hook up an electroencephalogram (EEG) to your brain, you can track those electrical impulses, and if you use what is known as a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) device, you can transmit information into a brain.
For the researchers, it was just a matter of hooking up enough EEG and TMS devices to all three participants, so that electrical signals could flow into and out of the various rooms. By staring at lights flashing on various screens at different frequencies, the “senders” could consciously change the electrical signals coming from their brains – and thereby influence the next move transmitted to the receiver.
From Tetris to more complex collaborative tasks
This might sound like an incredible amount of work to go to in order to play a game of Tetris, but it actually represents a tremendous breakthrough in brain-to-brain communication. According to the researchers, the whole system is scalable, and it might even be possible to build a global social network around this brain-to-brain interface system. And, instead of playing social games, that social network might be used for more complex collaborative tasks. Imagine a world of diplomacy where two world leaders avoid nuclear confrontation by directly communicating brain-to-brain, or a world where medical doctors perform complex operations while being guided by surgeons located remotely around the world.
So should Facebook be getting worried? Not yet. But those same University of Washington researchers have already demonstrated a similar system for playing a variant of the game “20 Questions,” so it’s obvious that the level of brain-to-brain collaboration is only going to increase in the future. Instead of playing “Words With Friends” on Facebook, you might be hooking up (literally) with random strangers around the world to solve crossword puzzles together or play multi-player video games together. And from there, the future is limited only by your imagination.