At The Speed Of Thought
Researchers hail first central nervous system made of two brains
What appears to be the first direct brain-to-brain transmission between animals has been reported in the journal Scientific Reports1. The experiment, which involves sending signals between a rat’s brain in Brazil and a partner in the US, heralds some interesting questions as to the role technology may play in our own future interactions.
Described in the press as an ‘international mind-meld’ the experiment itself is relatively simple in concept. The Brazilian rat – the encoder – was trained to press one of two levers to gain a reward, dependant on whether or not an LED in its enclosure was lit. A neural interface recorded the activity in the rat’s motor cortex and then transmitted this to the US rat – the decoder – which was also faced with two levers.
The neural input the US rat received helped it choose which lever to press and, every time it chose the same as the Brazilian rat, gain a reward. Overall it achieved a 64% parity with its distant partner, far better than even odds and what the researchers describe as “a new central nervous system made of two brains”.
The team conducting the research at Duke University in North Carolina was led by Dr Miguel Nicolelis who believes that this research paves the way to define “an organic computer capable of solving heuristic problems that would be deemed non-computable by a general Turing-machine”
There has been some disagreement over what the ability to transmit intracortical microstimulation (ICMS) data implies but there is consensus that the work signifies a substantial step forward in neural interface technology.
Creating collaboration or multiplying falsehoods?
As impressive as the hyperbole surrounding the experiment sounds the interesting questions are not so much in the concept of a borg like superbrain but in the ways that humans could ultimately relate to this technology. In many respects, there is little difference between a rat responding to an LED light or responding to an electrochemical signal. If instead of a neural interface the rat in the US simply watched a video transmission of the Brazilian rat’s LED we might expect it to do better than a 64% correspondence. What is remarkable is the potential that neural transmission offers for both language and deception.
While rats are able to react to stimuli and adjust their behaviour in order to gain rewards they do not have a developed sense of self and hence their collaboration is fairly straight forward. Humans on the other hand have very developed, complicated senses of self and reward/gratification strategies. What outcomes might we see if neural interfaces could send intracortical data between us?
Our first reaction might be that a link such as this would create an almost telepathic connection, a connected mind that would lead to a utopia of collaborative thought but is this likely? Would an implant give us any more idea if someone were lying, for example? Would we not simply learn to game the output for our own purposes?
A bridge to new language
The rats in the Duke experiment already exhibited some signs of emergent behaviour. Since both rats got a reward each time the decoder chose correctly, the encoder rat started to try and aid its partner in the US by adjusting its movements to create a clearer signal. Over the course of the experiment the Brazilian rat refined its movements making clearer, smoother presses on the lever. In this case, the system was set up to favour collaboration but what would the result be if only one rat could receive a reward each time? Would the Brazilian rat try to obfuscate its mental signal?
The researchers in this experiment also used software to try and ‘clean’ the signal. With a choice of two levers the desired result was fairly obvious so they were able to boost the signal to noise ratio but what implications are there for the intercedence of software in transmission when the moral or ethical outcome is less clear cut? Could we ‘clean’ the transmission between two humans? What level of trust would we have with a sensory input from such a transmission if we felt that it had been manipulated or ‘cleaned’ by software?
When it comes to human social interactions there are of course a far wider range of options than simply ‘left’ or ‘right’ lever. Some people will blurt out whatever is in their head while others show icy restraint, some people speak plainly while others always rely on irony, some people invariably tell the truth while others lie incessantly. Would intracortical microstimulation make these variations less pronounced or more? Would an additional sensory input lead to fewer lies or more?
One could compare the transmission of ICMS data with the first written language, an invention which has certainly done little to reduce the amount of fiction in the world. It begs the question – what forms of language and fiction will ICMS transmission lead to?
It is undoubtedly many years before anything approaching a neural bridge could be developed for humans but the neural interfaces and ability to transmit these sorts of signals can only improve. The language that this generates and how we, as a society, choose to relate to it is something which will undoubtedly grow in importance.
Lochlan Bloom is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. His novella, Trade, is set in a near future where apps control the way we love, and is out now.
- Pais-Vieira, M., Lebedev, M., Kunicki, C., Wang, J. & Nicolelis, M. A. L. Sci. Rep. 3, 1319 (2013).