STEM Education: Get Two Steps Ahead of Brain-to-Brain Communication

The New York Times story, “Silicon Valley Turns Its Eye to Education” from Monday, January 12, observed , as many teachers and probably students already knew, that education is often the last area of our lives impacted by new technologies.

“Education is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology, and we’re seeing a lot of catch-up going on,” said Betsy Corcoran, the chief executive of EdSurge, an industry news service and research company.

I’m glad we want to play catch-up, but if teachers are to teach STEM to our future doctors, lawyers, engineers, programmers, and start-up entrepreneurs, then we must be knowledgeable about STEM ourselves. If STEM is for all students, it must be for all teachers as well.

Education doesn’t need to play catch-up. It needs to find a way to get two steps ahead.

And that means anticipating disruptive technology by doing two thing. The first step is we must stay current with groundbreaking science by sharing and discussing news. Our second step is that we must read science fiction to open our imaginations to the potentials of new technology, its uses, and its effects on society. So, let’s take one of the most disruptive looming technologies, which will appear – as all technology does – sooner than we think.

Although this digression breaks sentence diagramming flow, two events this weekend inspired me to get this out now:

  1. I finished reading the novel Nexus by Ramez Naam.
  2. The public radio show On the Media this week covered bioethiscist, transhumanist, and futurist George Dvorsky’s list of futuristic predictions that came true in 2014

nexusThe title, Nexus, names the book’s fictional drug, which temporarily connects human minds. Users can share thoughts, emotions, senses, memories, and abilities without the aid of a gadget, website, or even language. In neuroscience, this is known as brain-to-brain communication, but to laypeople, it is telepathy. The novel is set in 2040, after major cyberterrorist events led to a backlash against “genetics, cloning, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and any approach to creating ‘super-human’ beings.” The United States Congress passes the “Chandler Act” to restrict scientific research and suppress threats, and the act empanels the formation of the Emerging Risks Directorate (ERD) to investigate and enforce these new regulation. The US also leads the world in new regulation by drafting the “Copenhagen Accords on Global Technological Threats.” Nexus is the newest such threat, and is therefore heavily restricted; users and distributers face indefinite imprisonment without trial.

The plot centers on Kade Lane, a neuroscience graduate student, who gives Nexus an upgrade with nanotechnology, which makes Nexus’ effects permanent with the first dose. The drug creates a Nexus OS inside the user’s mind, and its operation is analogous to your smartphone. Kade and his partner create apps and software to control users’ actions and thoughts. We first meet Kade as he tests the “Peter North” program, which they named after the current Cassanova and “lifted from VR porn and hacked to send its output to their body-control software.” What follows is the humorous scene where awkward graduate student Kade delivers pickup lines a la Peter North, and Kade finds himself unable to manage the body-control software hacked from this VR porn program. Oops. “Bruce Lee” is another of Kade’s programs, and Naam’s best fight scenes describe, Matrix-like, what the body-control software can do.

Apps can also change the way the user feels. Throughout the novel, Kade runs the “serenity package,” which calms him when he’s imprisoned by the ERD (part of the Department of Homeland Security), when he meets the renowned neuroscientist and suspected terrorist Su-Yong Shu, and when he escapes an ERD ambush that reads like an action-movie sequence.

But Nexus is more than a mind- and body-controlling operating system. Ultimately, it is a new way to communicate, and its emergence is just as revolutionary the discovery of language itself. Naam does a good job showing both its advantages and disadvantages. The ERD fears that terrorists might hack Nexus’ software to create assassins, whereas Kade believes in its potential rewards: “It makes us smarter together than we could be apart. It can raise collective intelligence, collective empathy.” Throughout the novel, Naam revisits the benefits of a collective intelligence and the necessity of making emerging technology democratic. Despite the many worst-case scenarios Kade encounters, Nexus leaves the reader dreaming of possibilities. Naam’s optimism is as alluring as Nexus itself.

But how likely is this technology?

             “They say it’s some sort of nano-structure, not really just a drug. And that it links brains. Is that possible?”

Kade shrugged. “We can do it with wires and with radios. Why not with something you swallow? As long as it gets into the brain…”

Science fiction succeeds when it tells stories that stretch current technology, and when Naam published Nexus in 2012, human brain-to-brain communication facilitated by invasive nanotechnology was fictional. Don’t worry, it’s still fictional. But it won’t be for long, and it will arrival sooner than anyone expects.

Enter On the Media’s story “Futuristic Predictions that Came True in 2014.” In it, George Dvorsky, in his role as a contributing editor to the science and science fiction blog io9 discusses 15 breakthroughs science fiction predicted. The first literally mind-blowing achievement (yes, “literally” since neuroscience expands our brains’ potential) is a successful trial of non-invasive brain-to-brain communication. This happened not once but twice last year. Each experiment used a similar setup but for different goals.

On the left: View of emitter and receiver subjects using non-invasive devices to support brain-to-brain communication from the Starlab study.  On the right: Participants from UW. On the left, the emitter sees the screen and decides whether to fire a weapon, and on the right, the receiver fires by pressing the touch-pad. (Photo: Mary Levin, U of Wash.)

On the left: View of emitter and receiver subjects using non-invasive devices to support brain-to-brain communication from the Starlab study.
On the right: Participants from UW. On the left, the emitter sees the screen and decides whether to fire a weapon, and on the right, the receiver fires by pressing the touch-pad. (Photo: Mary Levin, U of Wash.)

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Brain-to-brain (B2B) communication system overview. On the left, the BCI subsystem is shown schematically, including electrodes over the motor cortex and the EEG amplifier/transmitter wireless box in the cap. Motor imagery of the feet codes the bit value 0, of the hands codes bit value 1. On the right, the CBI system is illustrated, highlighting the role of coil orientation for encoding the two bit values. Communication between the BCI and CBI components is mediated by the internet. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0105225.g001

In August, PLOS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed, open-access, online publication, published a paper describing how scientists working at Starlab, based in Barcelona, were able to mentally transmit simple greetings (“hello,” for example) across continents. They rigged one emitter subject with an EEG (electroencephalography) cap, which used electrodes to record electrical currents in the brain. A computer decoded these currents into thoughts and sent the message over the Internet in binary code. The receiver participant was connected to another computer, which used a “robot-assisted image-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)” device (i09). Basically, a machine triggered sensations of light, which the participants reported verbally.

I encourage you to read i09’s story “The First Successful Demonstration Of Brain-To-Brain Communication In Humans” and even the entire study “Conscious Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans Using Non-Invasive Technologies.”

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Experimental Set-Up. Schematic diagram of set-up. Brain signals from one participant (the “Sender”) were recorded using EEG. When imagined hand movements were detected by the computer, a “Fire” command was transmitted over the internet to the TMS machine, which caused an upward movement of the right hand of a second participant (the “Receiver”), resulting in a press by the hand on a touchpad. This press triggered the firing of the cannon in the game seen by the Sender. Red lines mark the part of the architecture that corresponds to the direct brain-to-brain interface. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111332.g001

Later, PLOS ONE published a similar study from researchers at the University of Washington. The paper explains how scientists facilitated direct brain-to-brain collaboration in playing a video game. In the game, the players had to fire weapons at enemy rockets and avoid planes. One participant was able to see the game and manipulate the cursor – using his mind – and decide whether to fire. The other participant controlled the firing button but could not see the screen (he was in another room). Similar to Starlab’s experiment, brain-to-brain communication was non-invasive and used EEG and TMS systems. The sender participant wore an EEG cap that recorded when to fire and the receiver wore a TMS coil that triggered a pulse: “The stimulation caused a quick upward jerk of the Receivers right hand, which was positioned above the touchpad.” Read io9’s story “This Gamer Used His Thoughts To Control The Movements Of Another Player” and the article “A Direct Brain-to-Brain Interface in Humans.”

So, back to the question: “Is it possible?” Yes.

Both studies say more research is needed before the Nexus-type communication is a reality. Not only do these studies raise ethical concerns, but they also admit current bandwidth speeds must improve to catch up to the number of neurons transmitting information. Even if nanotechnology provides a solution to the safer and less-complicated option of non-invasive transmitters, it will be years before brain-to-brain communication is an alternative to smartphones and social media. In a conversation with i09,

 Naam says we could build a telepathic network in a few years, but with “very, very, low fidelity.” But that low fidelity, he says, would be considerably worse than the quality we get by using phones – or even text or IM. “I doubt anyone who’s currently healthy would want to use it.”

How Much Longer Until Humanity Becomes A Hive Mind?

But back to education.

I began by saying that education needs to start being ahead of the innovation curve instead of playing catch-up. So, since we know brain-to-brain communication will happen in some form or another one day, educators must begin planning for it now.

Both the fictional Nexus and these recent nonfictional developments in brain-to-brain communication have two direct effects:

  1. The ability to access any information from another person.
  2. The potential to create a collaborative mind.

In the next two posts, I’ll address how each will impact education, what educators must do to prepare, and what educators are doing right.

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