Brain to Internet Interface Is Here

Wednesday, January 3, 2018
Fatou Darboe

We all accept that anything that can be digitally connected through the infinite expanse of the internet will be. It’s simply the “Internet of Things.”

But what if, just what if, one of those things is your brain? Well that’s where we’re headed.

Several companies like Elon Musk’s Neuralink are working on connecting human brains to the internet. Elon Musk launched Neuralink last March in order to create devices that enable mind-machine amalgamations.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg revealed that they have 60 engineers working on constructing interfaces that would enable you to type by just using your mind.

Bryan Johnson (founder of Braintree) is funding a company called Kernel which seeks to develop neuroprosthetics to increase intelligence, retention and more.

But those ideas are in development. Well, up until now.

A team of biomedical engineers at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg South Africa have turned this idea into reality. They have successfully streamed human brain waves to the internet on an open-source website.

They used an electroencephalogram (EEG) device and hooked it to a portable Raspberry Pi computer. They call it the Brainternet.

The Brainternet

What it does is convert your brain waves into signals that can be livestreamed and made available through a web portal. It relies on a few basic elements.

Image credit: Forbes

You are hooked to a mobile EEG headset which captures your brain wave signals. Those signals are then uploaded to a portable computer that uses specific code to decrypt the signals to be displayed as information on a website.

It is currently a one-way road. People can see what is happening in your brain but can’t upload anything to your brain. However, the researchers say that they are trying to achieve a two-way road.

“Ultimately, we’re aiming to enable interactivity between the user and their brain so that the user can provide a stimulus and see the response,” says Adam Pantanowitz, the lead research of the team that developed the technology at the Wits School of Electrical and Information Engineering.

Caption: Adam Pantanowitz, brainchild of the Brainternet

Image credit: Wits University

“In the future, there could be information transferred in both directions – inputs and outputs to the brain.”

Perhaps someday in the near future, there will be an app on your phone that enables you to dial into other people’s brain.

The creators, however, say that the development of the technology is solely to get a better understanding of how the brain works and could be beneficial to health-based and other practical applications.

According to Pantanowitz, in the short and medium term, the technology could “enable some really forward-thinking medical applications, such as streaming brain data if a person suffers from epilepsy, or blood glucose data of a person who has diabetes." 

That would enable people to interact directly with their own data through an easily accessible interface like a smartphone. It will allow them to store the data effortlessly, thus making diagnostics easier; and to also share them easily with medical practitioners.

EEG is not new and the technology is really not that alarming. There are already a multitude of devices that can turn brain waves into signals that can be acted upon.

Some of those devices are games and others are applications that tackle paralysis by enabling communication without speaking.

The novelty of this Brainternet is connectivity. Using brain waves to execute tasks is quite different from translating brain activity across the internet.

When researchers are able to make it a two-way road and add interactivity, then we begin to live science fiction novels. Our brains will become transparent.

The Ethics and Security Concerns of the Brainternet

But some experts are worried about the ethics and security of such an endeavour. Pantanowitz has acknowledged that connecting everyone’s brains to the internet could pose privacy and security issues (like hacking).

It is a nice thought to have our brains connected to the internet but it is less appealing to have a hacker in our minds.

Pantanowitz has acknowledged that this will become even more problematic when researchers are able to upload data to the brain instead of just transmitting it.

The ethics of internet-connected brains has been discussed in a 2014 study. The study highlights major ethical issues surrounding augmented and improved brain connectivity.

Just like genetic mapping, the study said that as we obtain more personal information from the brain, privacy rights will become more noteworthy, especially if hackers can transmit information to the brain.

"If thoughts can be planted, or behaviour compelled, through interfaces that send stimulation or information directly to the brain, it is theoretically possible at some point that such technology might be used without consent to control the behaviours of prisoners, for example," according to the study.

While the present state of the technology is too embryonic for current use now, caution is vital as the research on the ethical implications continues.

The study also highlights that if all our brains are connected to the internet, we may lose our individuality.

Pantanowitz thinks that we should be addressing those concerns now. "I believe that any [brain] signal that is produced by a person would need to be uploaded on an opt-in basis.”

True. Not everyone would be keen to open-source their brain or thought signals. So issues around privacy and security regarding this technology need to be taken seriously before they take off and multiply in the near future.

Pantanowitz then made a proposal as to how to prevent some of the security and privacy issues. He proposed a new network, outside of the internet, to connect to.

For example, similar to China’s quantum communications project, information can be sent through knotted photons from satellites.

Benefits of the Brainternet

There are several benefits of the Brainternet, most of which are in the medical field.

If we look at the healthcare implications, it is extremely beneficial. It could allow doctors to transmit information from your brain so that you can communicate directly with computers and one another.

Pantanowitz said that researchers could potentially use the information to study the brain waves of multiple people at a time.

"The idea is that eventually we're going to become more connected to the networks around us and we could eventually become Internet of Things nodes on the network ourselves," he said.

"Information can travel from our brains to the networks, and back from the network into our brains."

Currently, patients with intractable epilepsy spend several days with electrodes implanted in their cortex while computers collect information about the neural firing patterns that precede their seizures.

Firing of neurons is what enables us to think, move and feel. But decoding the language of neurons and their communication with the rest of the body – actually listening and making sense of how brain cells enable us to perform our basic functions – has been one of neuroscience’s most formidable challenges.

In the early 1980s, engineer Apostolos Georgopoulos at John Hopkins, pioneered brain-computer interfaces. He discovered neurons in the higher-level processing areas of the motor cortex that transmitted before specific body movements, like arm and wrist movements.

Additionally, some of the neuronal transmission patterns directed the behaviour of many lower-level neurons aid in moving individual muscles and limbs.

His findings were important because they highlighted that it is possible for us to record the signals and use them to foresee the direction and intensity of certain movements.

That research is what paved the way for the technology used by paralyzed patients to achieve mind control over their prosthetic devices.

Other Key Developments in Brain-Machine Interfaces

The Brainternet is truly a breakthrough development in biomedical engineering. However, there have been other key developments in the field.

Researchers from HRL laboratories in California recently developed a simulator which can transmit information directly from your brain and teach you new skills in a short amount of time.

The HRL team studied the electric signals in a trained pilot’s brain and transmitted the information to novices as they learned how to pilot an aeroplane through a realistic flight simulator.

Image credit: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

The results of their study, published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal, show that novices improved their piloting abilities 33 percent better than the placebo group.

The method they used could be translated into learning new languages, driving and exam prep, as the system targets changes to specific areas of the brain as you learn.

The method was apparently used by ancient Egyptians 4000 years ago when they used electric fish to simulate and reduce pain. Apparently, Benjamin Franklin also applied currents to his head.

It is the first step to building a Matrix-like software. In the Matrix, Neo is able to learn Kung fu in seconds after the martial art is upload to his brain.

The technology facilitates a new way to learn more and faster but on a much smaller scale than the matrix.

Pretty soon, just like in the Matrix, you could be able to feed knowledge directly into your brain by simply falling asleep.

Wrapping Up

The Brainternet is a giant leap ahead in achieving full and encompassing brain-computer interfaces and machine learning.

The results of the research project could give us a better understanding of how our minds work and consequently enable us to use that knowledge to hone and enhance our brain power.

However, we need to be cautious with the legal, ethical and security considerations and establish guidelines on how this technology could be practicable. It certainly sparks deep questions about the future as we know, or envision, it.

Cheers to soon possessing Matrix-like capabilities?