Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, envisions a world where people communicate brain-to-brain directly using telepathy.
In a Q&A session with site users on Tuesday, Zuckerberg, 31, shared his thoughts on what he believes will be the future of communication.
“One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology,” Zuckerberg wrote in response to a question about what’s next for Facebook. “You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too.”
To understand how Zuckerberg’s vision would theoretically work, you have to understand how the brain works, too.
The nervous system is composed of cells called neurons, which communicate with each other using chemical signals called neurotransmitters. When a neuron receives one of these signals, it generates a tiny electrical spike. And because millions of these signals are required for everything your brain does — typing on your computer, reading, remembering to brush your teeth, etc. — your brain is sending off pinpricks of electrical energy all the time.
Scientists can now measure and map this electrical activity using existing technologies like EEG and fMRI machines. And once they have enough maps, they can begin to read them — a point that neuroscientists and researchers are just now approaching.
At the University of California at Berkeley, a team of cognitive scientists have managed to reconstruct clips of movies their subjects were watching, based solely on measurements of their brainwaves. “You could not see the close-up details,” wrote the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku after watching one of the “movies,” “[but] you could clearly identify the kind of object you were seeing.”
And the technology that Zuckerberg envisions involves both the ability to “read” a mind and also get that pattern of electrical signals into someone else’s head.
There are invasive options; i.e., implanting some kind of device in your brain. In 2013, scientists at Duke University implanted two lab rats with microelectrode arrays and taught one of the rats to press one of two levers. Afterwards, the second rat, who had not been trained, also seemed to know which level to push: It had received neural signals from the first rat, via the implant.
Recently, researchers have also had some luck with a noninvasive technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. When you put on a TMS headset it generates a magnetic field over your scalp, which can be used to activate neural pathways. Last fall, test subjects in India were able to use TMS to “think” the words “hola” and “ciao” to test subjects in France; the process was painfully slow, however, and the words weren’t sent in their entirety — they had to be encoded as binary digits, uploaded to the Internet, sent, downloaded and then decoded as flashes of light.
Though this research is promising, it has quite a ways to go before it practical and usable.
“‘Telepathy’ technology remains so crude that it’s unlikely to have any practical impact,” wrote Mark Harris at the MIT Technology Review.
One of the new developments that researchers are looking into is a handheld, cellphone-sized MRI machines that would make it easier and cheaper to capture your own brain activity. And the Army is developing a telepathy helmet, almost like a VR headset, that would condense and simplify all this electrical signal-sending — although that, experts say, is still decades away.
Facebook’s Research division – the arm of the company that studies machine learning, AI and virtual reality – has not published any work on brain-to-brain communication and does not appear to employ any researchers in the field.
When this technology does become available some eery quandary’s could present themselves, such as: How would you control who “spoke” to you? What if someone sent you disturbing or abusive thoughts, or “hacked” your brain? And if these signals are moderated by some third-party technology, like a headset or helmet, will they be recorded somehow and saved, and by whom and for what purpose? Could they be hijacked by advertisers like the ones in “Minority Report,” who tailor interactive billboards to private thoughts?
This technology could lead to a total surveillance society with targeted advertising.