Science fiction, being fiction, is often filled with outlandish ideas. From faster-than-light speed starships, human-like aliens, or handy laser pistols, sci-fi is full of the impossible, improbable, and the impractical. But let’s look at an idea that may actually be within the realm of what’s possible.
Telepathic abilities are popular in fantasy, science, and superhero fiction. But is it the sort of superpower that we could actually possess?
The Basic Premise: Combine brain computer interfacing, transcranial directed stimulation, and text messaging or mobile communication together to allow people to communicate using thoughts rather than speech or writing.
Even going back to the early days of the business and personal computer, two of the main concepts in their construction are the use of input and output devices. While output devices are usually screens and audio speakers, input devices have mostly been keyboards and mice, and nowadays microphones, touch screens on smartphones and some gesture recognition systems in things like motion-tracking video games. With the possibility of BCI, a user would be using their thoughts directly to input commands to a computer. Rather than typing a sentence by pressing a sequence of keys, a sufficiently advanced sensor, either installed inside the skull or perhaps worn on the scalp or head, could pick up the activity of the brain. It would be programmed to translate that input as a sequence of words or commands, as if taking dictation. Rather than moving a cursor with one’s hand through a computer mouse, the device could sense a thought for a kind of movement, making the cursor a sort of non-physical digital manipulator limb – almost like an extra hand dedicated solely to interaction with electronics.
Naturally, there would be a learning curve, a period of acclimation to get used to using the device, but there’s no reason to believe that the process would be any more demanding than the requirements of learning how to type on a keyboard (and may in fact be more intuitive, after a while). Although, like typewriters before them, the habit of pressing keys to compose messages may have a cultural inertia that limits the adoption of this style of interface, even without requiring surgery into the skull. It could become an essential tool for people that are, for one reason or another, unable to speak normally (such as temporarily with a bad sore throat, or permanently as in some kinds of paralysis).
This technology sends very low voltage into the brain, causing certain brain regions to activate in ways like they naturally do through thought. Whether visual, auditory, or some other sense being activated, it would allow the recipient to receive a kind of stimulus that, either over time or through signals being translated to match desired sensations or messages, the brain would be made to think, creating whatever message was being sent. In this way, tDCS functions as an output method: rather than looking at images of text on a computer screen, electrical signals could be sent to the visual or language parts of the brain to activate them and generate the thought in the recipient of whatever the sender intended. The same could be done for audio.
Theoretically more than audio-visual information could be sent. Tactile perception (such as the feel of a hug from a loved one) and olfactory or gustatory sensations (such as the smell and taste of freshly baked pie) could be communicated as well, directly into the brain. Contrary to popular misconception, humans have more than five senses, so other sensations, such as balance, temperature, or even stomach satiation could (theoretically) be activated. Though it may be complex, there’s no law of physics that prohibits it.
It should be noted that using tDCS for communication is optional. It is probably easier, and less invasive, to simply use the BCI above to send a text message or audio conversation to someone’s phone earpiece or smart AR glasses (assuming those are developed as well or instead of using tDCS) as output devices. However, this essentially makes the system a thought-based hands-free electronic controller, rather than something closer to telepathy.
Part 3: Mobile Communication Media
This is easily the most established part to the technology suite. Using either telephony, text messaging or other mediums of communication, a user can select whether to send something like spoken words or audio, or visual written symbols. This part functions in many was like normal texting, calling, or sending of pictures, video, or other files.
People might opt for a choice of either over-the-air cyber-telepathy, similar to cellphones that can call anyone anywhere, or instead for a local area network (LAN) that is likely both more intimate and secure. If BCI requires surgical implantation rather than an external device that can be easily bought and worn, however, the LAN option is probably less likely.
One of the major limitations of this “telepathy” is that it requires both the sender and receiver to be using the same technology: if a person lacks the devices or has them deactivated, the communication obviously fails. Given the ubiquity of cellphones today, however, widespread adoption should likely be considered plausible, so that a “mind-blind” individual who cannot be reached by telepathic communication is uncommon.
The Good …
When combined with connected devices as part of the internet of things, a person could control multiple kinds of objects (one’s house, office, car, phone, appliances, or even drones) using only their thoughts. If set up properly this could verge on the border of telekinetic ability: manipulating physical objects in the world through thoughts alone.
The application with the most impact, of course, would be to restore ability, agency, and even mobility to those who have lost it through accident or disease. Things like mind-controlled robotic exoskeletons would allow the paralyzed to walk and move again, perhaps with as natural a grace as a typical able-bodied individual, if given enough development and practice.
The Bad …
As an evolved form of communication, cyber-telepathy faces a lot of the same problems our internet currently and our other telecommunication systems have had to deal with in the past. In addition to security concerns with people’s brains, the potential use of secret messaging for nefarious purposes, and government (or corporate) privacy violations, there are other considerations as well. Advertisements have a more direct line to the user’s mind, and if they manage to exploit tDCS they could enact crimes of mind control on their targeted audience, whether intentionally or accidentally. Would laws be able to protect people? Could such kinds of control, subtle or overt, be exploited by power groups, for political or financial gain? Could there be ways to manipulate perceptions so people either didn’t know or didn’t care it was happening? Consider simply the emotion-manipulating effects of social media in the past five-years, and one can imagine at least a ten- or hundred-fold increase in potency by interfacing directly with the brain.
Of related concern is brain hacking. As mentioned before, part of the system is input and another part is output, but in this case the “computer” is (at least partly) a brain; a human person. But computers can be hacked, either by the user or an outside agent for some gain. Even if it is the user themselves who is trying to perform hacks on their own brain, they could seriously hurt themselves and potentially destabilize their behavior in ways that could be dangerous to themselves or others. Unlike a phone or computer hack, however, if the brain is broken it could be impossible to repair, and cannot simply be replaced. It could even lead to accidental suicide. Malicious hacking from outside could also potentially force seizures, sensations of pain, or dangerous behaviors, or maybe even kill someone through brain damage. All of these concerns are excellent reasons to consider developing this technology in ways the would avoid using tDCS (which, as noted above, is optional).
… And The Weird
If cyber-telepathy allows for the transmission, from person-to-person, of sensations beyond mere text, imagery and sound, it is possible that the software could activate other senses. The arts and humanities may create media that audiences can partake of that involves other senses, such as temperature, movement, or some kinds of emotions. It could be an opportunity to communicate things language has no or limited ability to transmit, such as certain philosophical constructs, religious mindsets, or personal experiences. If constructed properly, an entire scene could be broadcast or saved as a file that could give the recipient a complete sensory experience, either meshing with or overriding their own present experience.
As an input method, the technology could allow for computers to produce things that are beyond mere dictation. Rather than learn to draw an image, a person might have their device record what their visual cortex is imagining, and then produce that picture for another person, or for display on a screen or for print. The same could go for 3d rendering and animation, or for music (from the auditory cortex) or complex dances or martial arts techniques (from the parts of the brain that deal with bodily coordination).
It is also possible, even though tDCS is not currently medically approved (at the time of writing), that people could send cognitive treatments to each other through their mobile devices. Cognitive therapies could be downloaded (assuming they came with the doctor’s encrypted prescription verification code). And as mentioned, people could use these to perform brain hacks, e-mailing packets of confidence or euphoria to each other.
While of course it doesn’t count as telepathy in the traditional sense (any more than the invention of the telephone was), this form of “cyborg telepathy” is probably as close as we will get withing the limits of what is scientifically possible. Whether it is a commercially viable technology that goes from the laboratory to the street remains to be seen. While it comes with a lot of possible problems and complexities, it seems like the technology may eventually come to pass, either as a niche laboratory prototype, or as a technology that actually could change our world.