Today is August 27, and two fascinating and surprisingly related things are in the news. One is the release of my good friend Ramez Naam’s (“Mez”) second novel, Crux. The other is this press release from the University of Washington, announcing the first ever direct brain-to-brain communication.
Computer-mediated brain-to-brain communication is the core theme of Mez’s series that started with Nexus and continues with Crux. Of course, a thousand variations on “The Matrix” have been done to death, but where Mez’s novels shine is in their combination of hard sci-fi realism about the technology involved, and the focus on the societal response to the initial emergence of the technology. Mez has written several nonfiction books and is experienced with considering the Big Picture of how technology and human activity interacts with our nature and our culture, and now that he’s writing fiction you can experience that well-researched thoughtful investigation in a fast-paced page-turner format. Seriously, I was a beta reader for both manuscripts, and in both cases I literally could not put it down: I started reading, and then missed both sleep and work for the next 15 hours or so until I was finished. So I recommend the book.
And of course I also recommend the link on the neuroscience research. I will comment that the news, although momentous on the surface, is technically a mere baby step. The technology they use on the receiving end is trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, which is a blunt instrument to say the least. It’s barely accurate enough to activate just a few fingers in the motor cortex, and there is very little control of the degree of activation or deactivation generated by the pulses. Also, in my early days in the lab I volunteered to help pilot a TMS study where they administered me 6000 pulses over 5 hours or so, and honestly I did not feel very good afterwards, so I’m not sure it’s completely safe in the long term, either.
But the fact remains that this will forever be on the record as the first instance of direct brain-to-brain computer-mediated transmission. I’m sure there will be a great deal of discussion about the technical details of what needs to happen to make that really work. I have some thoughts of my own which I will share here in the future.