One of the most iconic lines from Keanu Reeves’s most iconic film comes when Reeves, playing Neo in The Matrix, connects to a computer, twitches as if receiving an electric shock, and then opens his eyes and says, “I know kung fu.” This is certainly not the most extreme technological feat in The Matrix, but it’s definitely still science fiction.
Or is it? Could we ever connect our brains to computers and literally download information? Or, even spookier, could we link our brains to other peoples’ brains and share thoughts, feelings, and ideas? The answer is: almost. In fact, we’ve been working for years to create brain-computer connections. They’re called brain-machine interfaces, or BMIs. By taking digital information and converting it to electrical signals, the brain can decode or vice versa. This technology has allowed paralytics to move prosthetics with their thoughts, the deaf to hear sounds, and the blind to see the physical world. And our capabilities seem to be improving every day. Researchers at Brown University announced this past week that they have invented the first rechargeable, wireless BMI that can be permanently implanted in the brain.
But even more striking than this accomplishment is the work of neuroscientists at Duke University. A team there recently announced that they had successfully created the first brain-to-brain interface, or BTBI. In a paper published in Scientific Reports, the scientists describe how they implanted rats with artificial sensory and motor cortices, which are the areas of the brain responsible for receiving sensation and sending information to muscles to coordinate movement. “Encoder” rats were taught to press a lever for a reward when they saw a red light. “Decoder” rats were trained to press a lever when their brain was electrically stimulated. Next, the rats were connected via the Internet—the encoders were in Brazil and the decoders were in North Carolina. When encoder rats were shown a red light, the decoder rats, four thousand miles away, pressed a lever despite not actually being prompted to do anything.
Now, getting rats to push a button certainly isn’t going to shatter anyone’s world. But what if, as has already happened with BMIs, we could use the same technology in humans? To say the possibilities are endless is an understatement. For one, it may completely change our definition of social media. Instead of posting pictures and videos to Facebook, we may someday be posting memories or thoughts that could be downloaded and experienced by others. Or it could render formal education obsolete. Like Neo, we may one day hook up to a computer and receive all the knowledge we could ever need. Even more exciting, it may allow us to create what one researcher calls “organic computers.” Similar to how neurons form networks in order to process information more efficiently, we could connect different brains, all with separate knowledge sets and ways of thinking, into networks to solve the same problem at the same time. These “computers” would be exponentially more intelligent than any human or any machine we’ve ever built or dreamed of.
But it may not be all roses. Using this technology in humans raises some scary questions. Could our implanted brains be attacked by software viruses? Could they be controlled wirelessly by a third party? Beyond the logistics of the interfaces, these BTBIs may call into question our personal identities. Our personalities, our senses of who we “are,” are results of the interactions of our memories, thoughts, beliefs, and patterns of action. If we can artificially insert other people’s memories, thoughts, and beliefs into our minds, are they still part of “them,” or are they now a part of “us”?
These questions won’t need to be answered for years. But two things are clear: First, the technology to create BTBIs will develop, regardless of whether or not we want it to. It will be up to our sociocultural conscience to decide how to use it. Second, we are close to the point at which we may have to drastically rethink our definitions of science fiction, social media, and maybe even what it means to be human.