The University Network

Connecting the Human Brain to the Internet in Real Time

A team of researchers at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, has successfully connected a human brain to the internet in real time for the first time in history.

The “brainternet” is the creation of Adam Pantanowitz, a lecturer in the university’s School of Electrical & Information Engineering.

“I wanted to become the first person to live stream consciousness, and allow people to observe what I was doing in an open source way,” said Pantanowitz.

That is not exactly what came to be, as the content of thoughts are not revealed through this connection, but the streaming of brain wave data to the internet in real time still marks the creation of the world’s first Internet of Things (IoT) brain node.

The technology works by broadcasting the brain waves collected by an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine onto the IoT. The IoT refers to the network of nontraditional computing systems which connect to the internet, including TVs, cable boxes, game systems, even some refrigerators — and now, the brain.

To broadcast one’s brain waves onto the IoT, one must wear a specially designed “Emotiv EEG” device developed by the researchers. This piece of technology interprets brain signals and projects them onto a website that can be accessed by anyone.

 

The upsides of this technology are great, especially in the areas of medicine and research, as well as in communication. And, while the notion of plugging one’s brain into the internet may frighten some, it is important to note that this is an unidirectional transfer of data — the brain can transfer data to the internet, however it cannot back accessed via the same channel.

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In other words, the brain is not hackable. The ability to tamper with a brain through an internet connection is not currently possible, nor is it likely to be developed anytime soon. The brain’s complex system of biochemical connections is still not fully understood, let alone understood well enough to convert into binary code and altered remotely.

Inspiration Behind ‘Brainternet”

The “brainternet” was inspired by Pantanowitz’s passion for technology and his interest in the ideas behind sharing one’s thoughts and interacting online, he said.  

“About 4 years ago, I was thinking a lot about thought sharing platforms, and the new means of thought sharing enabled via the internet,” said Pantanowitz. “I am also fascinated by human computer interfaces, and this is the large focus of my work at Wits in the School of Electrical & Information Engineering.”

“I thought to myself: ‘what if I were to open source my thoughts, in a live stream, onto the internet,’” he said.

Since the technology to accomplish it in a cheap way was available, Pantanowitz said he decided last year to finally implement this with two students, Danielle Winter and Jemma-Faye Ch ait.

Impact of “Brainternet”

Pantanowitz believes that the “brainternet” serves as a prototype for brain-machine interface showing the rapid advance of technology.

“I believe prototypes like this reveal the pace of this advancement and create public conversation,” he said.

Conversations about the impact of these types of technology on human lives are “ones that we have to have sooner rather than later,” he continued, because of “dramatic changes” that are in our future “as we become more integrated with networks and computers.”

In the short term, Pantanowitz believes that the “project will enable more research and enable the field of remote medical diagnostics.”

Currently, he is involved in talks on the subject of hacking humans.

“We are thinking a lot about the ethical and safety side of these types of systems,” said Pantanowitz. “We are also doing some slightly different brain research relating to the use of the human brain integrated in networks.

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Cameron W. Carpenter is studying economics and psychology at Sarah Lawrence College. He is Vice President of the student-run investment firm Gryphon Capital Management, as well a published science fiction novelist. Cameron’s academic interests include quantum physics, artificial intelligence, and biomedical engineering. In his spare time, Cameron enjoys reading and playing chess.