This is the Modem World: The brain modem is here

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|08.30.13

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Joshua Fruhlinger
August 30th, 2013
In this article: brain, column, modem, modemworld, network, scifi
This is the Modem World: The brain modem is here

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

DNP This is the Modem World The brain modem is here

Consider this headline: "Researcher controls colleague's motions in 1st human brain-to-brain interface."

This. Happened.

University of Washington nerds put an electrode-speckled cap on Rajesh Rao and attached it to a computer that was connected to the internet. They then put Andrea Stocco in another room on the other side of the University of Washington campus, plopped another electrode cap on him and connected that to a computer.

Then -- you might want to sit down -- Rao played a video game, but instead of hitting a keyboard to control the game, he thought about doing so and sent a signal to Stocco over the internet. Stocco wasn't watching the game, but he was still able to beat it as his brain cap received Rao's digital signals. The signals, he said, felt like nervous ticks.

Stocco then said this: "The internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains. We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain."

I'll pause for a moment while you wrap your head around that one. Perhaps you're not as impressed by this as I am, but if I understood what these guys at the University of Washington did, humans have essentially designed the first brain-to-brain internet modem.

Sure, all they did was get one guy to make another guy twitch his finger and hit a space bar, but I'm pretty sure the first experiments with computer modems were just a couple people saying, "Hi. A/S/L?" to one another at 50 baud.

You may be thinking, "Big deal. So we can make other people twitch their fingers. Maybe this'll be useful for medical research and prosthetic technology, but I'm not sure where this could really go." You'd be right if they were only experimenting with the motor cortex, but one of the researchers told Reddit that the TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) machine can also be used to stimulate sight or sound by positioning it on different areas of the scalp. In short, this adds multidimensionality to the experiment. It adds a possible language. It adds logic and a future.

The resolution -- if I may call it that -- of the technology is very low at this stage. Imagine the very first Pong game compared to where we're at with immersive 3D polygons. And we're not even at Pong yet, but we're at that stage when Nolan Bushnell told Allan Alcorn, "We could make Pong."

You can be sure that these researchers will explore other senses and other humans, and will quickly learn how to accelerate this "human modem" technology to do all sorts of amazing things -- things we can only now begin to conjure. At least I hope so.

With that said, here are three possibilities I came up with. Just for fun.

A totally different ending to Airplane!

I'm being a bit silly in my example here, but remember in Airplane! when the guy in the airport was telling the girl in the plane how to land? Well, imagine if there was a TMS machine in planes, and remote pilots could direct virtually anyone to operate the plane. Of course, all of this could be moot with remote-control technology anyway, but it's fun to think of the ways humans could remotely control others.

Smell-o-vision, finally!

As researchers nail down other senses and add some resolution, you can bet that we'll ultimately be able to "play back" senses and actions, because before they reach the target, the signals are converted into digits. These digits can -- and will -- be recorded and packaged into little virtual vacations. Cyberpunk is here!

Remote training

Want to learn the best knife techniques from top chefs around the world? Build muscle memory as they plug into an entire classroom of students and literally guide them through the perfect julienne. Trying to gain confidence as a mountain biker on those technical descents? Let Steve Smith plug into you over a wireless connection as he guides you down that hill that's been turning you into a kitten. Come out the other side knowing that you've conquered the hill!

Clearly I've taken this technology a bit too far, but it's fun to imagine what we can do with such a groundbreaking discovery. Here's to hoping they get the support and funding they deserve. I, for one, welcome the brain modem.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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