Friday, February 5, 2016

Digital connection of human brains : Internet of human beings

Vocal cords were overrated anyway. A new Army
grant aims to create email or voice mail and send
it by thought alone. No need to type an e-mail,
dial a phone or even speak a word.
Known as synthetic telepathy, the technology is
based on reading electrical activity in the brain
using an electroencephalograph, or EEG . Similar
technology is being marketed as a way to control
video games by thought.
"I think that this will eventually become just
another way of communicating," said Mike
D'Zmura, from the University of California, Irvine
and the lead scientist on the project.
"It will take a lot of research, and a lot of time, but
there are also a lot of commercial applications,
not just military applications," he said.
The idea of communicating by thought alone is
not a new one. In the 1960s, a researcher
strapped an EEG to his head and, with some
training, could stop and start his brain's alpha
waves to compose Morse code messages.
The Army grant to researchers at University of
California, Irvine, Carnegie Mellon University and
the University of Maryland has two objectives. The
first is to compose a message using, as D'Zmura
puts it, "that little voice in your head."
The second part is to send that message to a
particular individual or object (like a radio), also
just with the power of thought. Once the message
reaches the recipient, it could be read as text or
as a voice mail.
While the money may come from the Army and its
first use could be for covert operations, D'Zmura
thinks that thought-based communication will find
more use in the civilian realm.
"The eventual application I see is for students
sitting in the back of the lecture hall not paying
attention because they are texting," said D'Zmura.
"Instead, students could be back there, just
thinking to each other."
EEG-based gaming devices are large and fairly
conspicuous, but D'Zmura thinks that eventually
they could be incorporated into a baseball hat or
a hood.
Another use for such a system is for patients with
Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS. As the disease
progresses, patients have fully functional brains
but slowly lose control over their muscles.
Synthetic telepathy could be a way for these
patients to communicate.
One of the first areas for thought-based
communication is in the gaming world, said Paul
Sajda of Columbia University.
Commercial EEG headsets already exist that allow
wearers to manipulate virtual objects by thought
alone, noted Sajda, but thinking "move rock" is
easier than, say, "Have everyone meet at
Starbucks at 5:30."
One difficulty in composing specific messages is
fundamental — EEGs are not very specific. They
can only locate a signal to within about one to
two centimeters. That's a large distance in the
brain. In the brain's auditory cortex, for example,
two centimeters is the difference between low
notes and high notes, D'Zmura said.
Placing electrodes between the skull and the brain
would offer more precise readings, but it is
expensive and requires invasive surgery.
To work around this problem, the scientists need
to gain a much better understanding of what
words and phrases light up what brain sections.
To create a detailed map of the brain scientists
will also use functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography
(MEG) .
Each technology has its own strengths and
weaknesses. EEGs detect brain activity only on
the outer bulges of the brain's folds. MEGs read
brain activity on the inner folds but are too large
to put on your head. FMRIs detect brain activity
more accurately than either but are heavy and
expensive.
Of all three technologies EEG is the one currently
cheap enough, light enough and fast enough for a
mass market device.
The map generated by all three technologies will
help the computer guess which word of phrase a
person means when a part of the brain is lights
up on the EEG. The idea is similar to how
dictation software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking
uses context to help determine which word you
said.
Mapping the brain's response to most of the
English language is a large task, and D'Zmura
says that it will be 15-20 years before thought-
based communication is reality. Sajda, who is on
sabbatical in Japan to research using EEGs to
scan images rapidly, sounded skeptical but
excited.
"There are technical hurdles that need to be
ovecome first, but then again, 20 years ago
people would have thought that the two of us
talking to each other half a world away over
Skype (and Internet-based phone service) was
crazy," said Sajda.
To those who might be nervous about thought-
based communication turning into a sci-fi
comedy of errors, D'Zmura says not to worry.
Mind-message composition would take specific
conscious thoughts and training to develop them.
The device would also have a on/off switch.
"When I was a kid I occasionally said things that
were inappropriate, and I learned not to do that,"
said D'Zmura. "I think that people would learn to
think in a way the computer couldn't interpret. Or
they can just switch it off."

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