Digital silhouette of a human head, with a light burst representing its brain

The ‘Brainternet’: South African scientists have found a way to link the human brain to the Internet

  • No more guessing – we’ll soon be able to read each other’s minds
  • The brainternet lets you watch your thoughts on screen, online, in real time
  • We can enhance our brain to become better, faster, smarter

You would think that, by now, scientists would have explored everything brain-related, but the truth is, they’re still just scratching the surface. As the Nobel Prize winner Stanley B. Prusiner said, the human brain is “the most fascinating object in the universe”, and yet much of it is still a mystery. However, for humans to remain relevant in the next few decades, as we begin to compete against machine intelligence, we need to unlock those mysteries.

No more guessing – we’ll soon be able to read each other’s minds

Predictions by one of the world’s most well-known futurists, Ray Kurzweil, suggest that by the 2030s, our brains will be equipped with microscopic devices. These implants will enable us to communicate with the world around us, allowing our brains to connect to the Internet of Things (IoT), helping us be better at everything we do. This might seem like science fiction, but early research has shown promising results.

Take an experiment conducted by scientists at the University of Washington as an example. Their ten participants played 20 rounds of a Q&A game. When a person asked a question, the respondent, wearing an electroencephalography (EEG) helmet, answered by looking at LED lights that corresponded to ‘yes’ or ‘no’. When they focused their minds, the EEG collected the data and sent it, via the Internet, to an electromagnetic coil placed behind the ‘interrogator’s’ head. Then, an electromagnetic signal was activated by their brain waves, allowing the person asking the questions to ‘read’ their mind.

This is just the beginning. At a discussion held at Singularity University, Kurzweil said that by connecting the human brain to the cloud, we’ll be able to directly send and receive emails using our brains. Such innovations would improve both our logical and emotional intelligence, helping us develop deeper levels of expression and understanding. To explain his point in simpler terms, Kurzweil imagined a scenario in which he meets Larry Page, one of Google’s co-founders. The first thing that crosses his mind while walking toward Page is that he needs something clever to say. With his brain connected to the cloud, Kurzweil could find something appropriately witty in a matter of milliseconds. It’s like your brain on Google – hyperconnected.

Pretentious as it may seem, Kurzweil believes that enhancing the brain’s capacities will make us ‘more godlike’. But this is not without its critics, of course. In the US, for instance, a full 72 percent of respondents said they’re not interested in using any sort of brain implants to improve their brain capacity. And David Linden, a neuroscience professor from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland, thinks that Kurzweil’s prediction is a bit premature given the pace of science along this frontier. But keep in mind that implanting our brains with tiny chips isn’t a novelty. Patients with Parkinson’s disease use brain implants to control their symptoms, for example. If we look forward, imagining advances in brain tech, we can begin to see Kurzweil’s vision.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil talking while holding his index finger up
Predictions by one of the world’s most well-known futurists, Ray Kurzweil, suggest that by the 2030s, our brains will be equipped with microscopic devices.

The brainternet lets you watch your thoughts on-screen, online, in real time

It’s estimated that the human brain consists of roughly 88 billion neurons, processing an impressive 400 billion bits of information per second. In other words, the brain is far more powerful than even the best supercomputers. For example, you need “the combined muscle of 82,944 processors in [a] K computer [a type of supercomputer made by Fujitsu] to get just 1 second of biological brain processing time” – and it took no less than 40 minutes! Knowing that even supercomputers have only a fraction of the processing power of the brain, we can only imagine the full scope of its capabilities. However, our body doesn’t move at the speed at which our brain functions. For instance, transmitting neural impulses and turning them into bodily movement takes some time (just think about how fast you can type vs. how fast you can think).

Let’s say that you have to google something. Your brain would ‘tell’ your fingers to type some words and hit enter. Even if you’re the fastest typist in the world, it would still take some time for the information to reach your muscles. But what if we just skip this whole step and directly communicate with the Internet? Not only would you be able to access information quicker, but for those with motor impairment, this could open a new world of interaction. Very soon, this might be possible thanks to breakthroughs in neuroscience, especially as the brain-computer interface (BCI) technology improves through experimentation. One of the latest, and most promising experiments is the Brainternet.

For years now, scientists have been interested in the possibility of connecting the human brain to a computer, enhancing and expanding its ability to process data as they simultaneously gain insight into its workings. But scientists from South Africa have managed to go a step further, and have found a way to link the human brain to the Internet – a connection dubbed the ‘Brainternet’.

The man behind the project, Adam Pantanowitz, who is a lecturer at the Wits School of Electrical and Information Engineering, emphasised the importance of the project. “The Brainternet is a new frontier in brain-computer interface systems,” said Pantanowitz, adding that “There is a lack of easily understood data about how a human brain works and processes information. The Brainternet seeks to simplify a person’s understanding of their own brain and the brains of others. It does this through continuous monitoring of brain activity as well as enabling some interactivity.” Pantanowitz, together with his students, Jemma-Faye Chait and Danielle Winter, succeeded in uploading and streaming brainwaves in real time.

To allow the Brainternet to work, test subjects wear an Emotiv EEG, which monitors their brain activity. This EEG collects their brain waves and transmits them to a Raspberry Pi, a computer that is a bit smaller than the average smartphone. The signals are then sent to an application programming interface, enabling communication between software programs. The end result is the data being displayed on an open website, accessible to anyone interested in observing the individual’s brain activity. But the team’s current accomplishments are just a hint of what is yet to come; as Pantanowitz explains: “Ultimately, we’re aiming to enable interactivity between the user and their brain so that the user can provide a stimulus and see the response.” He believes that the Brainternet could be improved by using smartphone apps to help classify brain wave recordings and to “provide data for a machine-learning algorithm”. What’s more, in the future, we could see information transmission not only as one-directional, as the Brainternet demonstrates, but as “inputs and outputs”. This is certainly one step closer to the future where we’re able to feed information into our brain.

We can enhance our brain to become better, faster, smarter

The project from the scientists at Wits University will definitely provide better insight into our brain activity. And the project allows open access, which means that anyone can observe what’s going on in our heads. This allows scientists the world over to collaborate, accelerating the pace of innovation. We’re hopeful that it might soon lead to other, even more exciting breakthroughs in machine learning and BCIs. And if we’re lucky, we might soon witness the birth of new, enhanced brains.


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