Breaching the Final Frontier – Telepathy in the 21st Century

We’ve all been there. Staring blankly at the final, ruing the fact that we spent the semester weirdly obsessed with Pokemon Go and wishing we could just extract the answers out of the professor’s head.  No? That was just me? Oh well. Ahem. The point is that at some point in our lives, we have all dreamed of what it would be like to have telepathic powers. The answer to what we would do with those powers seems to vary proportionally to the number of people you ask. And although everyone’s got a slightly different idea – ranging from the noble to the downright creepy… I’m looking at you uncle Kevin – telepathy has long held the fascination of human beings.

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Although extrasensory or paranormal acts have been a staple of the human diet since we first stood up on two legs and peered upwards into the vast cosmos, the origin of the concept of telepathy in Western civilization can be traced to the late 19th century and the formation of the Society for Psychical Research. Since then, there have been countless “experiments” and demonstrations – the most famous of which is the Ganzfeld experiment – that tried to prove the validity of telepathy. They all failed to stand up to the test of replication and hard data – which is the Science equivalent of “pics or it didn’t happen” – and were eventually discredited.

That all changed in 2014.

In a very clever little (scientifically validated) experiment, researchers from the University of Barcelona were able to transmit “thoughts” from subjects in India to subjects situated in France. Here’s the water-cooler version of the experiment (you know, the version you’ll be able to repeat to your coworkers to impress them at tomorrow’s water cooler bro-down; take that Stan! I’ve had it with your Hawaii vacation and the “I paid for one but accidentally got TWO mai-tais!” story).

The subjects in India were asked to imagine moving their arm if they were thinking of a ‘zero’ and imagine moving their legs if they were thinking of a ‘one’. These thoughts sent different kinds of signals to the brain. The signals were picked up by an EEG (electroencephalogram) machine and converted to EEG diagrams, which were emailed to the team in France and fed into another machine that converted the diagrams back into electric signals. These electric signals were then fed into the brains of the French team’s subjects via magnetic stimulation of the brain’s electric signals using a  Trans Cranial Magnetic (TMS) stimulator. The subjects in France then ‘developed’ an understanding of the choice (between one and a zero) made by the corresponding Indian subject. Thus, information was conveyed between humans over a distance without any physical interaction. If you’re interested in the detailed procedure, this is the actual research paper. I would also highly encourage you to not bring a printout of this paper to the water-cooler. You should quit when you’re at the top.

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Picture Credits: http://journals.plos.org – The research in Pictures

The subjects in France then ‘developed’ an understanding of the choice (between one and a zero) made by the corresponding Indian subject. Thus, information was conveyed between humans over a distance without any physical interaction.

At this point, you’re probably thinking “Well, that was a load of bollocks! That’s not what I meant when I said I wanted to know if that cute girl at the bar was into hackeysack players!”. Well, tough luck. The truth is, information exchange is governed by the laws of physics. There is no magic device that you can just throw on someone’s head and read the contents of their heads.

OR IS THERE?!

I apologize for the drama. I needed a good segue.

Seriously though, are you ready for wearable technology that can read your mind? It’s not as crazy as it sounds, at least that’s what Mary Lou Jepsen says. Mary Lou is a former executive at Google X and Facebook’s Oculus and current CEO of ‘Opnwatr‘ – the company that is working to build the first “wearable MRI”.

OpenHouse AEC
A brain-computer interface (BCI)
being demonstrated back in 2009
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This cap is capable of reading people’s thoughts

 

“If I throw you into an MRI machine right now, I can tell you what words you’re about to say,” Jepsen said. “I can tell you what images are in your head. I can tell what music you’re thinking of. I can tell if you’re listening to me or not. That’s possible with an MRI, even now.” Opnwatr’s vision, however, goes way beyond that. Their current project, which is turning heads in the scientific community, is a wearable device like a ski cap or a shirt that can analyze things ranging from your thoughts to your health. The obvious uses for such a technology will lie in the domain of medical procedures and mental health treatments, but the possibilities don’t stop there — something that Jepsen readily acknowledges could be both empowering and frightening.

The implications of such an invasive technology are indeed staggering once you really get to the meat of it. Can it be used by law enforcement? Can you be forced to wear it in court during testimony? What about human rights? Will there need to be an amendment to the Geneva conventions or the United Nations Charter? Can you implement filters or privacy settings into the technology so that the doctors doing a routine MRI don’t inadvertently get a hold of your Social Security – or worse, your browser history?

One interesting thing, however, is that this might be the answer to the big discussion taking place right now – Will humans lose jobs to AI or Artificial Intelligence. That’s because, if you think about it, this technology is not AI; rather, it is IA – Intelligence Amplification or Intelligence Augmentation. So instead of losing our jobs to robots, we can use technology like this to make ourselves better, smarter, and more creative. How? Well, our brains are more complex than any computer we know how to make, our brains are also far more creative. The main obstacle to our civilization’s intellectual growth is ‘output bandwidth’. We are constrained by the slow and narrow output of mechanical systems: the slow pace with which we move our throat and jaw muscles to talk, or our fingers to type, or draw, or write. Opnwatr’s website asks “What if we could dump the images we were thinking of, the ideas, the music in our head, the raw emotions directly the computer or directly to each other? What if you could simply think of a new object, and the computers, the robots and 3D printers could prototype it instantly – and then melt it down to enable iteration. Imagine this scaling to the creation of a new song, or a rough cut of a new movie, or a new idea for space travel or new insight into how to clean up the environment, or transform healthcare or education? We can be freed up to work on the big problems of the world and to unleash creativity.”

 

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Honda’s robot Asimo can be controlled using a Brain-Computer Interface

 

What if we could dump the images we were thinking of, the ideas, the music in our head, the raw emotions directly the computer or directly to each other? What if you could simply think of a new object, and the computers, the robots and 3D printers could prototype it instantly? So instead of losing our jobs to robots, we can use technology like this to make ourselves better, smarter, and more creative.

Now, whether this technology will bring about the third world war or a second Renaissance is up for debate; and there will be a lot of it when it finally hits the market in about five to ten years. Let’s hope that it will bring about a world where universal empathy is a possibility. Until then, let’s all sit back and dream our private dreams and have our one sided conversations, safe behind the padlocked gates of the final frontier – our minds.

 

 

 

 

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