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The space between our heads

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04.08.2020

In a nondescript building in Seattle, a man sits strapped to a chair with his right hand resting on a touchpad. Pressed against his skull is a large magnetic coil that can induce an electrical current in the brain, a technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation. The coil is positioned in such a way that a pulse will result in a hand movement. A mile away in another building, another man looks at a screen while 64 electrodes in a shower cap record his brain activity using electro-encephalography. Rough activation patterns are fed back to the computer so that he, by concentrating, can move a dot a small distance on the screen. As he focuses, a simple signal derived from the brain activity is transmitted to the first building, where another computer tells the magnetic coil to deliver its pulse. The first man’s hand jolts upward, then falls down on the touchpad, where the input is registered as a move in a video game. Then a cannon is fired and a city is saved – by two bodies acting as one.

As gameplay goes, the result might seem modest, but it has far-reaching implications for human interaction – at least if we believe the team of scientists at the University of Washington led by the computer scientist Rajesh Rao who ran this experiment. This is one of the first prototypes of brain-to-brain interfaces in humans. From the sender’s motionless concentration to the receiver’s involuntary twitch, they form a single distributed system, connected by wires instead of words. ‘Can information that is available in the brain be transferred directly in the form of the neural code, bypassing language altogether?’ the scientists wondered in writing up the results. A Barcelona team reached a similar result with people as far apart as India and France. With a gush of anticipation, they exclaim: ‘There is now the possibility of a new era in which brains will dialogue in a more direct way.’

The popular media has been quick to jump on the bandwagon as the prototypes make global headlines. Big Think declared brain-to-brain interfaces ‘the next great leap in human communication’. The tech entrepreneur Elon Musk speculated about how a neural prosthetic to be made by one of his own companies might ‘solve the data rate issue’ of human communication. The idea is that, given high bandwidth physical connectivity, language will simply become obsolete. Will we finally be able to escape the tyranny of words and enjoy the instant sharing of ideas?

Let’s face it: we’ve all had second thoughts about language. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t stumble for words, stagger into misunderstandings, or struggle with a double negative. It’s a frightfully cumbersome way to express ourselves. If language is such a slippery medium, perhaps it is time to replace it with something more dependable. Why not cut out the middleman and connect brains directly? The idea is not new. As the American physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann mused in The Quark and the Jaguar (1994): ‘Thoughts and feelings would be completely shared, with none of the selectivity or deception that language permits.’

It is useful to examine this view of language carefully, for it is quite alluring. Rao and his team complain about how hard it can be to verbalise feelings or forms of knowledge even if they are introspectively available. On Twitter, Musk has described words as ‘a very lossy compression of thought’. How frustrating to have such a rich mental life and be stuck with such poor resources for expressing it! But no matter how much we can sympathise with this view, it misses a few crucial insights about language. First, words are tools. They can be misplaced or misused like any tool, but they are often useful for what they’ve been designed to do: help us say just what we want to say, and no more. When we choose our words carefully, it is because we know that there is a difference between private worlds and public words. There had better be, since social life depends on it.

Second, and more subtly, this view sees language as merely a channel for information: just as the speaking tube has made way for the telephone, so language can be done away with if we connect brains directly. This overlooks that language is also an infrastructure for social action. Think of everyday conversations, in which we riff off on a theme, recruit others to do stuff, relate to those around us. We don’t just spout information indiscriminately; we apportion our words in conversational turns and build on each others’ contributions. Language in everyday use is less like a channel and more like a tango: a fluid interplay of moves in which people can act as one, yet also retain their individuality. In social interaction there is room, by design, for consent and dissent.

The difference with current concepts of brain-to-brain interfaces couldn’t be greater. A transcranial magnetic pulse leaves no room for doubt, but none for deliberation either. Its effect is as immediate as it is involuntary. We can admire the sheer efficiency of this form of........

© Aeon


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