Communicating through your thoughts alone is possible — with a little technical assistance.
Scientists at the University of Washington's Center for Neurotechnology have figured out how to network human minds together to collaborate to move Tetris-like shapes on a computer screen using only thoughts.
It works like this: Three players, including one main player, sit in separate rooms and watch game pieces cascade down a computer screen. Using telepathy (and a lot of hardware, including a heavily wired brain cap), two players "tell" the main player which way to move the pieces to clear the bottom row.
I know because I put on the funky cap and played this mind game, under the direction of University of Washington's Rajesh Rao and his team. It's part of the first video in NPR's new exploration of the future.
The video series, Future You, with Elise Hu, will look at what it means to be human by 2050. Our journey starts with the future of the human body: The next phase of human evolution seems headed to merging our biological bodies with machines — reshaping who we are, inside ourselves.
In the past couple of years, the world's most prominent innovators and entrepreneurs have begun projects aimed at decoding what's in our brains and augmenting human intelligence in ways previous generations never dreamed of.
Elon Musk founded Neuralink, which is dedicated to increasing cognition with devices implanted in the brain. Bryan Johnson, the billionaire who founded Braintree — the payments program powering Venmo — started Kernel, which is working on similar projects. And Facebook is making a brain-machine interface that lets people type with their thoughts.
It's still early days, and most ideas to upgrade human bodies and brains are in the research phase. But scientists expect that what we think of as "human" is likely to undergo a revolution in the coming decades.
"In ... studies where we did [mind] control of robotic arms, in a few hours the robotic arm was being assimilated by the brain of the subjects as an extension of the sense of self, an extension of the body of these subjects," says Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis. "That is affecting the definition that the brain creates for our own bodies, of our own sense of self. What is the border that calls us human?"
The question means there's no better moment for us to begin a dedicated reporting journey asking the biggest questions about who we are and who we will be.
In episodes that will drop monthly, Future You will test the possibility of supercharging our brains to learn faster, go to a lab trying to make our neural code programmable and continue to trace this moment in human evolution that's pushing the limits of who we are today. Check for new episodes at npr.org/futureyou.
Have an idea for us to explore about upgrading humans? Please send them by email or through Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. We want to know what "superpowers" you think are worth exploring or the questions that this kind of augmentation raises for you.
NOEL KING, HOST:
And now, our co-host David Greene is going to tell us about a brand new series on NPR.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah, that's right. It's a new beat here at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. And the beat belongs to our colleague Elise Hu. She is covering the future, among other things, in a new monthly video series. It's called Future You. And Elise is with me. Elise, how do you cover the future when it hasn't happened yet?
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Well, it means I can't get anything wrong...
GREENE: That's true. That's good.
HU: ...Or you can't fact-check me until way later.
GREENE: Yeah, that's a perk. But seriously, what have you been looking at?
HU: Well, what we're really focusing on is how human intelligence and artificial intelligence are melding more and more.
GREENE: Sounds like stuff out of a science fiction movie, but it - that's really happening.
HU: Yeah, and there's a lot more happening than I thought was possible. Elon Musk started a company called Neuralink that's working on this. Facebook began working on a way for us to type straight from our brains. And the Venmo billionaire Bryan Johnson started a company called Kernel, and he says the goal is improving human cognition. So all these companies and researchers are saying that connecting the most sophisticated computer on the planet, which is our brains, to outside machines could change who we are as humans.
GREENE: So you sort of immersed yourself in this world recently. And just take us there. Tell me what you've been discovering.
HU: Well, there have been a number of developments just within the past few years. People can now just wear a cap that's plugged into what's called a brain machine interface and learn how to move things like robot arms or send thoughts. Computer-assisted telepathy - I tried it.
GREENE: This is crazy.
HU: And while we can't see what private tech firms are doing, we are able to see some of the published research. So I went to the University of Washington Center for Neurotechnology and met the head of the center there, Rajesh Rao.
RAJESH RAO: All right. Here we are.
HU: OK. This is everybody.
RAO: So we have a brain-to-brain interface called BrainNet, which allows two people to communicate with a third person directly using brain signals.
HU: So the experiment lets three players, one in each room, simultaneously play a video game like Tetris. Remember Tetris, David?
GREENE: Of course - moving blocks, rotating them to make sure they fall into place. Yeah.
HU: Right. So in this situation, there were three of us, each in separate rooms, looking at screens. And we're all wearing these caps with electrodes on them called EEG caps, hooked up to computers. Two of us are the senders of thoughts. So we could see the block in the bottom row...
GREENE: Which is critical to make sure that it fits in if you have to rotate it.
HU: But the third player - the one who actually had to decide whether to rotate the block to clear the row - he couldn't see that bottom row. So he completely relied on us to tell him whether to rotate the block through our minds. And all we did was look at flashing strobe lights that flashed at different rates for yes or for no when we decided to send the thought.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All you got to do is just sit back and relax.
HU: Let's do - sit back and relax in your brain bonnet while strobing lights come at you...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Exactly.
HU: ...At different frequencies.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yep.
HU: So the computer can pick up on my brain reacting to the flashing light at yes or at a different rate of pulsing on no. So then it would send that signal to the player in the other room. He would see a kind of glow in his field of vision that, yes, he should rotate the block.
GREENE: Did it work?
HU: Oh, yeah. We totally did it. This experiment has been run a number of times now, and it's a well-known test case for computer-assisted telepathy.
GREENE: OK. So this is an early experiment, but what are researchers saying? Where could this go?
HU: Well, I asked Rajesh Rao, the head of UW's neurotech center, about this and what he imagines.
RAO: Transfer of knowledge and skills definitely is a possibility. If you watched the movie "The Matrix" - learning kung fu, for example, just by downloading it. So how'd you do in calculus? Were you great in calculus? Well...
RAO: (Laughter) No. OK.
HU: Absolutely not.
RAO: So that's an example where just downloading it might not be sufficient 'cause you might have questions. So you might want to have interactive tutoring - you know, brain tutoring.
GREENE: I could've just tutored my brain directly and not studied calculus.
HU: Yeah. Maybe direct knowledge transfer is a possibility for the future.
GREENE: Is it - am I wrong? This is kind of creepy, too.
HU: Well, all technology can have malicious uses and be used for ill, right? But in this case, it gets even thornier. And Rao addressed some of that, too.
RAO: You could have brain tapping - you know, somebody reading your thoughts. You could have computer viruses. Imagine, you know, somebody doing that with a - like, a mind virus.
HU: So malware for the brain or something.
HU: Yeah, mind malware.
GREENE: That's crazy. Like, you could be thinking that you wanted to infect my brain somehow and make me have different thoughts.
HU: Well, worse, it would be used by businesses or governments.
GREENE: So this is important stuff you're covering.
HU: Yeah, and it's exactly why I thought that it was an important frontier for us to be looking at.
GREENE: All right. And you can look at it much more by watching the premiere episode of Elise's new video series Future You, With Elise Hu. I like the rhyme. Just go to npr.org/futureyou. Elise, thanks.
HU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.