An Overstated Achievement with Understated Warnings

Articles with titles like, “Brains of 3 People Have Been Successfully Connected, Enabling Them to Share Thoughts,” always seem to overstate what has been accomplished:

Neuroscientists have successfully hooked up a three-way brain connection to allow three people to share their thoughts – and in this case, play a Tetris-style game.

The team thinks this wild experiment could be scaled up to connect whole networks of people, and yes, it’s as weird as it sounds.

It works through a combination of electroencephalograms (EEGs), for recording the electrical impulses that indicate brain activity, and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), where neurons are stimulated using magnetic fields.

The researchers behind the system have dubbed it BrainNet, and say it could eventually be used to connect many different minds together, even across the web.

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The details of the experiment suggest that researchers haven’t cracked the key questions that would be involved in actual mind-to-mind connections.  Basically, the experiment involved two people communicating to a third person whether to rotate a Tetris block.  In a completely ordinary world the two might shout across the room to the person with the controls.  All the experiment did was to change that method of communication, such that the senders looked at one of two lights which would trigger a change in an EEG readout.  On the recipient’s end, the readout triggered a visual flash in his or her brain, which the participant had been told how to interpret.

So, yes, there’s a neat quality to this, but it’s hardly telepathy, much less direct communication.  Someday, maybe we’ll wake up to news that such things had been accomplished, but it still seems to be a good way off.

That said, the can is getting close enough that our society should begin contemplating the should.  Do we want to become like the mind-merged creatures in Robert Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children?  In more practical terms, how do we enforce the boundaries that this technology will sweep away?  People need to be able to enforce a firewall so that others can’t simply enter their brains, especially if it gets to the point of communicating thoughts more directly than flashes of phantom lights.

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