The World Wide Mind

The World Wide Mind

by Prithwis Mukerjee - Thursday, December 31, 2015 11:46 PM IST
The World Wide Mind

In 15 years time, technology could enable a mind to search for, or “Google” for, the answer to any question, information about which, or the solution, is available in connected minds across the world.

Mind reading and thought control could be creepy topics. On the one hand, they conjure up images of black magic where adepts can look into a victim’s mind and then hurt him or otherwise control his behaviour without his knowledge, and on the other hand, we remember Pink Floyd and their defiant call to evade thought control in the classroom. Even Uri Geller’s celebrated demonstrations of bending spoons by thought, in the 1970s, was viewed very suspiciously by the scientific community. In fact this whole business of reading and controlling the mind is seen as being based on superstitions and beyond the reach of the science and technology that is taught in our schools.

But strangely enough, today, there is a bioinformatics company, Emotiv, that sells commercial mind reading equipment starting at $350 and the OpenBCI initiative (where BCI stands for Brain Computer Interface) manufactures equipment that allow students to build thought-controlled robots!

What kind of volte face in the technology community can turn a superstition into consumer product?

Actually it’s not really all that weird. The human nervous system runs on electricity, or rather on the principles of electrochemistry, that is similar to the technology used in our electrical gadgets. In fact, electrical signals generated within the body have been detected through electrocardiogram (ECG) and electroencephalogram (EEG) devices and used for medical diagnosis for more than a century.

The EEG signals generated in the brain are our first clue into what a person could be thinking about, but the difficulty lies in decoding what the complex signals mean. In radio or television, images and sounds are encoded as variations in electrical voltage at the transmitter and then decoded at the receiver. The decoding is easy because we have done the encoding ourselves and we know what stands for what. Decoding brain signals is like trying to make sense of an unknown language! You don’t know what the speaker was trying to say and need to figure it out from the circumstances. But the beauty of this construct is that the problem now moves from the domain of superstitions and the paranormal to the fairly well-understood domain of electrical engineering and signal processing—and now we have the full power of biology and computer science to help us.

But let us step back for a while and see how scientists are cracking the problem. It all began in the 1980s with the publication of Firefox, a science fiction novel by Craig Thomas, that described a thought-controlled Russian aircraft that was stolen by an American spy who had to “think in Russian”. This story inspired a whole generation of wheelchair manufacturers who tried, with increasing sophistication and success, to build wheelchairs, so that paraplegics—who are paralysed from the neck downward—can drive them around with their “thoughts”. The trick is to figure out which parts of the brain, or which neurons, change their electrical voltage when the person wants to turn left or right, detect that signal with EEG sensors placed on the head and use the signal to make the wheelchair move as desired. In fact, this technology is so well understood today that it is possible to build such a thought-controlled wheelchair with components that can be purchased off the shelf. The big breakthrough in this area has been replacement of complicated surgical procedures to implant sensors in the brain with small, inexpensive caps that people can put on their heads and which allow electrical signals or “thoughts” to be “read” by an external computer.

That takes care of mind reading, but what about thought control? If we can move motors and switches in a wheelchair, can we not move the muscles in a human body? Fortunately, muscles too are electrochemical devices that deform and contract when stimulated with electrical signals. When I want to move my hand, electrical signals travel from my brain to my hand and cause contractions in muscles. Again, the trick is to determine what signal causes a particular muscle to respond and this problem too, is well on its way towards a solution. In fact in a graphic, if not eerie, demonstration of a prototype, researchers at the University of Washington and then at MIT have shown how to connect two human beings through an electrical circuit so that one person can control movements of the other’s hand. Brain signals that indicate the desire to move a hand have been successfully detected in one person, picked up through a sensor, sent across a telecommunication network (the internet), fed into the arm muscles of another person in another city and we see that the hand of the remote person suddenly moves even though he had no intention of doing so! This is the first step towards thought control.

The World Wide Mind

However, the difficulty of controlling a human being is far higher than the difficulty of controlling an inanimate object like a wheelchair or robot. Which is why, while tools, toys, games, gadgets and computer programs that can be controlled by thought have reached consumer stores or can be built through do-it-yourself projects at school, control of another human being is still very much work-in-progress in research labs. Even if we leave aside the ethical and regulatory issues of working with humans, the process of “writing” into the nervous system is far more difficult and fraught with danger than the process of merely “reading” the electrical signals. So even if we have the technology today that allows me to make you move your hand (and perhaps slap yourself on your cheek!) the possibility of making someone fall in love or vote for someone in an election is still a few years away. But for that to happen, the subject must allow his brain to be connected to equipment that will allow an external signal to modify its native behaviour.

Once we have the means to “read” the electrical signals in the human brain and then “write” or otherwise influence the electrical signals with external equipment, we open up the possibility of connecting human brains to each other through Bluetooth, WiFi, 3G/4G and other wireless technologies in a biological version of the World Wide Web! In the digital World Wide Web that we are all familiar with, web browser software located in laptops and smartphones can read from and write data on distant web servers. This easy exchange of information between computers connected to the digital World Wide Web is the foundation of today’s digital society—spanning Gmail, WhatsApp, Facebook and e-commerce. However, even 20 years ago, this seamless exchange was inconceivable and access to the Web depended on screechy, expensive modems that could barely stay connected for more than 30 minutes—and that is exactly where we are today when we talk of connecting minds into a World Wide Mind.

Just as the connectivity between computers has improved by leaps and bounds, so is it going to be in the case with mind-to-mind connectivity. Irrespective of ethical and regulatory issues, minds will start communicating with minds, bypassing the five biological sensory organs, and using instead, the proverbial sixth sense. Only in this case, this sixth sense is nothing esoteric or paranormal but will be based on electrical impulses running on an internet-style network!

The concept of a World Wide Mind suggests an all-encompassing intelligence, or sentience, that sees all and knows everything. Just as a laptop connected to the digital WWWeb can capture the video image of a distant scenery through a webcam, so would a mind that is a part of the WWMind be able to search for, or “Google” for, the answer to any question whose answer is available in any of the connected minds!

Could this be a modern echo of the Advaita-Vedantic idea of Brahman, the single universal consciousness of which all sentient entities are a part of? Not for a moment are we suggesting that our ancient rishis—who apparently could see and know what was happening elsewhere—had similar technology, but engineers do have ways to replicate natural phenomena in a different, possibly more efficient manner. For example, our aircraft fly better than birds and earthmovers magnify the strength of human limbs. Today, when we need to travel, we think about cars and planes, not walking. Similarly, the technology that facilitates mind reading and helps create thought-controlled robots can and will be harnessed to make mind-to-mind communication a common feature of daily life.

The World Wide Web of digital computers that became popular in 1995 with the Netscape IPO grew out of two key technologies: Ethernet for basic data transmission, invented in 1973, and TCP/IP protocol adopted in 1983, for universal interoperability across disparate machines. Today, in the context of the World Wide Mind, we already have the biological version of a primitive Ethernet because data transmission has been achieved but we are yet to create the equivalent of TCP/IP.

The basic constructs to read minds and control muscles with thought is in place but we are yet to have a universal protocol for interoperability across diverse brain-computer-brain systems. Mapped against this timeframe, it seems reasonable that the World Wide Mind will become functional in another 15 years, or perhaps even earlier.

The author is an engineer by education, a programmer by passion, a teacher by profession, an imagineer by intention. He teaches at Praxis Business School, Kolkata, and has authored The Road to pSingularity which explores the intersection of computer science, genetics and Advaita Vedanta. Follow @prithwis on Twitter.

Prithwis Mukerjee is an engineer by education, a teacher by profession, a programmer by passion and an imagineer by intention. He has recently published an Indic themed science fiction novel, Chronotantra. 

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