Digital Life
6:23 am
Sat September 7, 2013

Mind-Melding, With An Internet Connection

Originally published on Sat September 7, 2013 12:01 pm

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, AJ Jacobs with some tennis trivia you won't hear anywhere else - boy, I hope it's true. But first, why worry about mobile phones when you can let someone know what's on your mind with no costly monthly contract? Two researchers at the University of Washington made a move - if you please - in that direction. Rajesh Rao is a professor of computer science.

RAJESH RAO: I've always been fascinated by, you know, science fiction stories of telepathy and, you know, the mind melding savant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

LEONARD NIMOY: (as Spock) Our minds are merging, doctor. Our minds are one.

SIMON: That's the Vulcan mind meld, which - all Trekkies to the contrary - is still fiction. Recently, Professor Rao and a collaborator sat down in separate labs of the University of Washington.

RAO: I was wearing something that looks like a swim cap with these electrodes, these little wires to record my brain signals from the surface of my head.

SIMON: Then Professor Rao started playing a video game.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

RAO: I was trying to shoot these bad guys, these rockets being fired by a pirate ship.

SIMON: Now, to shoot these bad guys, you have to hit the space bar on a keyboard. But Rajesh Rao just thought about hitting it and hoped his thought would travel electronically to cause a gentle zap in his friend's brain that would make him hit another keyboard.

RAO: So, I would be imagining moving my right hand, and the computer would convey that signal over to Andrea on the other side of campus.

ANDREA STOCCO: I was wearing a swim cap, and I was sitting on this chair, like a dentist's chair. And at that point I just wait.

SIMON: That's Andrea Stocco, a psychology professor, who was, in this one moment, just a well-educated guinea pig with his finger over a keyboard. He couldn't see the video game.

STOCCO: I was there. I was absolutely relaxing down on this chair. And I just noticed that my hand moved.

RAO: His brain had initiated the finger movement on his side. The finger movement then triggered the keyboard press, and that caused the rocket to be destroyed on my side.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, success.

STOCCO: I could see my collaborators that were in the lab, like cheering and they had this kind of big smiles and big eyes and I knew we had made it. And it was a great moment.

SIMON: Now, this was just a small pilot study, but technology like this might eventually help people who are paralyzed to move. Rajesh Rao says it's not mind control. He didn't fill his friend's mind with complex, personal thoughts. And for his part, Professor Stocco just feels a little slighted to be the one who was getting zapped.

STOCCO: That has been the recurring joke that the next turn we should swap chairs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.