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Will Brain-To-Brain Instant Messaging Eventually Replace Phones?

Imagine Apple one day making mind-reading machines.

Will Brain-To-Brain Instant Messaging Eventually Replace Phones?
[Illustration: Harkoo]

Decades from now, maybe we’ll forget about smartphones and start communicating via electronic telepathy. In a new experiment, scientists were able to show that one person could communicate to another–thousands of miles away–without typing or talking.

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The technology is rudimentary at the moment and a little more complicated than someone simply reading another’s thoughts. In the experiment, one person donned a wireless EEG helmet and thought of a word. A computer translated the word into code, and emailed it to a robot next to the other person; that person saw flashes of light corresponding to the word, which they reported back to the researcher.


Obviously, the whole process isn’t exactly a practical replacement for texting yet. But the researchers say they believe people will eventually be able to communicate fluently through an evolved version of the technology.

“What will be communicated is hard to guess: words, images, emotions, smells…who knows?” says Barcelona-based researcher Guilio Ruffini, a co-author on the study with researchers at Harvard. “If you look forward in time this experiment may be seen as a first step in the direction of developing technologies capable of eventually revolutionizing human communication, enabling deeper, richer, faster inter-human and human-machine communication.”

The technology could also be used to help someone better deal with their own thoughts–for example, someone struggling with depression or even psychosis could potentially use a device to recognize certain thoughts and feed back different messages to help treat the illness.

Scientists will have to learn much more about how the brain works–and how it can be stimulated–before the technology can become more practical.

“We can today easily elicit simple percepts–e.g., flashes of light, touch sensations–but figuring out how to do the same more abstract entities such as words, images, or more general concepts is a challenging task,” Ruffini says. “Even if we figure out what needs to be done, our current non-invasive technologies are very crude. Invasive technologies–implants–are another matter.”

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Still, the experiment is important proof that brain-to-brain communication is actually possible. “We used a binary code to digitally connect two brains,” Ruffini says. “There is something profound about this, and even if it is just a proof of concept it will hopefully inspire researchers worldwide to explore the possibilities further. We have shown there is a window, and barely cracked it open. But many important developments have started like this.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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