Aug. 27, 2013 at 5:44 PM ET
The world of mind-control zombie armies may have gotten just a little closer: Scientists say they've hooked up one person's brain to the Internet, to control the finger of another person playing a video game.
“The Internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains,” University of Washington psychology professor Andrea Stocco said Tuesday in a news release. “We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain.”
Stocco played the role of the mind slave in the experiment. Rajesh Rao, a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Washington, played the part of the puppetmaster. Or should that be the fingermaster?
How it was done
On Aug. 12, Rao sat in his lab, wearing a cap with electrodes hooked up to an electroencephalography machine. The EEG machine read Rao's brain activity while he watched a simple cannon-shooting video game unfold on a video screen. When it was time for Rao to shoot the cannon, he imagined moving his right hand to hit a "fire" button — while making sure not to move the hand in real life.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the UW campus, Stocco wore a cap that was equipped with a magnetic coil, placed directly over the region of his brain that controls his right hand. That hand was poised over the space bar on a computer keyboard.
The system was set up to transmit Rao's right-hand brain signals to Stocco's computer over the Internet, and then to translate those signals into a magnetic pulse in Stocco's brain cap. Stocco wasn't watching a computer screen, and wasn't in direct contact with Rao. Nevertheless, when Rao thought about making a hand motion, Stocco's right hand moved involuntarily to push the space bar.
"It was akin to the sensation when your eye twitches," Stocco told NBC News. "You know that your eye is twitching, but you don't know when it's coming."
Hitting the space bar caused the video-game cannon to fire, just as if Stocco ... er, Rao ... was playing the game.
"It was both exciting and eerie to watch an imagined action from my brain get translated into actual action by another brain," Rao said. "This was basically a one-way flow of information from my brain to his. The next step is having a more equitable two-way conversation directly between the two brains."
From rats to humans
Other research teams have previously established brain-to-brain links: Earlier this year, one team announced that they hooked up the brains of two lab rats in North Carolina and Brazil to swap brain signals. Another team set up a connection that made it possible for a human to wiggle a sleeping rat's tail. Yet another project has resulted in a brain-cap system for monkeys that can read almost 2,000 channels simultaneously — which is just about enough processing power to control a full-body exoskeleton.
Rao and Stocco say their pilot study marks the first demonstration of noninvasive human-to-human brain interfacing. However, the lead researcher behind the rat-to-rat brain communication experiment and the monkey brain-cap system, Duke University's Miguel Nicolelis, said he didn't think the newly announced experiment represented true brain-to-brain communication.
"This is not a breakthrough brain interface, because the second subject has no choice," Nicolelis told NBC News. "A computer could have sent that signal to a magnetic stimulator, and the stimulator will make the movements happen. ... It's very similar to sending the signal to a muscle. There is no message in the electrical pulse."
Nicolelis said that the experiment was a nice demonstration, but that Rao, Stocco and their colleagues may have "pulled the trigger a little too quickly" on announcing their results. "I'm afraid that people will take this and think that we are one step from mind control, and this is not even close," Nicolelis said.
Only the beginning
The University of Washington researchers acknowledged that their experiment was conceptually simple. Rao stressed that their signaling system deals only with on-off signals, rather than a person's thoughts. Also, the system can't be used to force subjects to do anything against their will.
“I think some people will be unnerved by this because they will overestimate the technology," said Chantel Prat, who is a UW psychology professor as well as Stocco's wife and research partner. "There’s no possible way the technology that we have could be used on a person unknowingly or without their willing participation."
The results of the experiment have not yet been detailed in a scientific journal. The researchers say they're working on an upgraded system that would transmit more complex information, including sensory data, directly between brains. If that system works, they'll conduct the experiment with a larger pool of experimental subjects.
Stocco said the technology could eventually be employed to help disabled people send distress signals through their thoughts alone — or even allow flight attendants or passengers on a plane to "mind-meld" with an operator on the ground if the plane's pilot became incapacitated.
But what about that zombie army? Does brain-to-brain communication raise the prospect of a brave new world, or a "Matrix"-like nightmare? Feel free to register your thoughts by leaving a comment or casting a vote in our unscientific poll.
More about brain interfaces:
The pilot study, titled "Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans," was funded in part by the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the UW, the U.S. Army Research Office and the National Institutes of Health. In addition to Rao, Stocco and Prat, the study involved UW students Devapratim Sarma, Matthew Bryan, Alex Dadgar, Bryan Djunaedi and Joseph Wu.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.