Will we ever be able to communicate with only our minds?

Cyborgs and Telepathic Computers

Brain-computer interface experiment
Brain-computer interface experiment
© 2010 HowStuffWorks.com

Professor Kevin Warwick works at the Institute for Cybernetics at the University of Reading and is credited with being the first cyborg -- part human, part machine. Warwick's research focuses on human-computer interfaces. Doctors have surgically implanted various cybernetic systems in Professor Warwick's body on several occasions. These systems connected directly to Warwick's nervous system -- doctors wired Warwick's nerves to cybernetic chips.

The systems allowed Warwick to connect electronic devices directly to his body. He could send signals through his nervous system to control various devices. He even had doctors wire his nervous system to his wife's nervous system. Whenever his wife closed her hand into a fist, Warwick would receive nervous system impulses. This experiment proved that with the right hardware, two humans could communicate telegraphically through physical signals converted into nervous system impulses.

Warwick's systems tapped into the nervous system, but didn't interpret signals from the brain as communication. Scientists at the University of Southampton designed a brain-computer interface that goes one step further. Their systems used subjects wearing electroencephalography (EEG) sensors and LEDs attached to computers.

Here's how it worked: Subject A imagined moving one of his or her arms. The EEG detected the subject's brain activity and sent it to a computer. If Subject A imagined moving the left arm, the computer interpreted it as a zero. An imagined movement of the right arm became a one. Subject A's computer sent each signal to a remote computer attached to an LED lamp -- Subject B would watch the lamp.

The lamp lit up in a series of quick flashes -- one set for a zero and a different set for a one. Each series lasted a couple of seconds and consisted of several flashes. While Subject B was unable to detect consciously which series was flashing at any given time, the subject's brain recorded the series without a problem. An EEG connected to Subject B detected which series the subject saw and sent that information to another computer. This computer would decode the series into either a zero or a one.

Using this system, Subject A could send a series of ones and zeros to Subject B through thought alone. Subject B couldn't interpret these signals consciously -- only by looking at the computer screen could he or she know what information had been sent. But the experiment showed that it's possible to send information through thought.

We're still many years away from being able to send and receive fully fledged thoughts to one another. What kind of problems might pop up if we create the technology needed to build such a system?