Robotic prosthetic limbs are truly amazing. These devices allow those who have suffered catastrophic, life-altering illnesses and injuries to regain lost mobility or dexterity and to experience aspects of life that were once inaccessible. In addition to improving the quality of life for millions of people, robotic prostheses have also inspired us to imagine new, exciting ways that the technology could be used.
While modern electronics continue to offer more immersive and intuitive interfaces, these inventions are still bound by the limitation of physical interaction. Touchscreens, mice and keyboards are very useful devices, but they still require us to translate our thoughts into actions before accepting input. This might lead us to wonder, “wouldn’t it be great if we could control devices with our minds?”
Although telepathic communication is often depicted as a lightning-quick, visceral technology in science fiction, there’s actually no convincing evidence that it would increase the speed or ease of communication, and the details of such interfaces appear anything but simple and intuitive. Let’s find out why this is the case.
Most of us believe that we can think faster than we can move or speak. This is based on the false assumption that the physical body merely limits the conscious mind. In actuality, the truth is often the opposite.
Our bodies not only optimize our cognitive abilities by sending important data to the brain, prioritizing things that require our immediate attention, they also carry out critical, complex tasks without conscious direction, often without our knowledge or consent, which frees our minds to spend attention in other ways. Examples include everything from walking and talking to biking and typing. By restricting our interface to only accept conscious thought, we are actually forcing ourselves to take control of automated systems, which impedes our mental capacity. It forces us to think about every individual instruction rather than the function as a whole. Imagine trying to think out a sentence one word or even one character at a time.
Another problem is that we don’t actually know how fast our brains can think. We also don’t know how fast they think whatever type of thoughts a telepathic device would accept. What we do know is that a comfortable rate of speech is about 150 words per minute and that skilled typists can reach upward of 120 words per minute. It’s likely that an improved keyboard configuration would allow for even faster speeds, so the disparity between speech and typing is actually very small. We also know that the average person reads at about 250 words per minute, which is about as fast as an auctioneer speaks. Using speed reading techniques, it’s possible to achieve a pace exceeding 500 words per minute. While comprehension at these rates usually falls between 60 and 70 per cent, these figures reveal that our brains can actually accept data far faster than they can generate it.
Of course, it’s possible that our rates of comprehension and speech are limited by our senses, so we we might accept and transmit data faster if we removed our mouth, fingers, ears, eyes and other body parts from the equation. But as it stands, the average person can type and speak at a rate similar to how they read and listen, which means that the bottleneck that telepathy would supposedly overcome has not yet been observed.
If we take a look at how modern robotic prostheses work, we observe yet another hurdle. Robotic limbs pick up signals sent from the brain, but they do not sense them within the brain. They merely intercept instructions in the nervous system on the way to the muscles. The difference is a significant because the type of thought that moves a limb is very different from other thoughts that occur in the brain. And this is precisely the problem: there are many different types of thoughts.
Our brains carry out a variety tasks, both conscious and otherwise. They are constantly sending and receiving signals to and from various locations in the body, monitoring and controlling our cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, muscular, respiratory, lymphatic, urinary, excretory, reproductive, digestive and immune systems. Our brains are also remembering the past, perceiving the present and predicting the future, and they’re usually doing more than one of these at any given moment.
The thought protocol for each functions is unique and must be distinguished if we plan to implement telepathic technology, for even the way we ponder a simple idea can vary significantly. We don’t just think in complete, coherent sentences, like mind-readers would have us believe. Our brains process emotions, sensations, opinions, images, music and ideas, and we’re thinking all these things while both consciously and unconsciously controlling our bodies. To illustrate the variation in thought, let’s examine all of the ways that we can think about a dog.
First of all, thinking the word dog is different from thinking about the word dog. It’s different from saying the word dog, thinking about saying the word dog and reading the word dog. It’s also different from thinking about a dog, some dogs or dogs in general, and it’s different from imagining or remembering a dog. It’s different from wanting a dog, missing a dog and loving or hating a dog. It’s different from looking at a dog, looking at a picture of dog, imagining a picture of a dog, and it’s different from imagining a picture of the word dog. It’s different from thinking about what it’s like to be a dog, from wanting to be a dog, and it’s different from actually being a dog. And thinking the word dog is different than thinking about thinking the word dog, and it’s different from considering thinking the word dog. Of course, considering thinking about the word dog is impossible, which brings us to our next point.
There’s a big difference between thinking something and doing or saying it, but if devices are controlled by thoughts directly from the brain, how would they know the difference? If someone with a prosthetic arm imagines punching another person in the face, the arm doesn’t do it, because it is merely sensing signals in the nervous system. But if we were controlling a device purely through thoughts in the brain, how would it distinguish which thoughts to obey and which to ignore?
If we consider taking an action, our body does not execute that action until we have made the decision to send the signal to our muscles. But in the brain there is no such confirmation through action. If we were to try and write an e-mail using a telepathically-controlled computer, how would we separate the words we wanted to send from the words we were considering? And how would we control punctuation, spacing, format and other details? Would we have to construct each sentence using individual words, or would we simply send raw thoughts, ideas or emotions? Would we be able to mute incoming signals or control their priority or storage? Would we be able to transmit images, music and other media? How about emotions? How would our brain receive emotional signals? And how would we deal with distractions and multitasking?
One possible solution to a few of these issues could be to use the nervous system to communicate. This would involve training our minds to control imaginary limbs that we pretend are part of our bodies. The instructions could then be translated into other signals that could be interpreted by a device. We can prove that this is possible by simply imagining that we have another set of arms beneath our normal arms and then imagining moving them around. This produces an eerie sensation that is likely similar to phantom limb syndrome.
Another less efficient option would be to confirm thoughts by thinking the words out loud (or speaking internally). It’s much harder to articulate how this type of thought works, but it’s probably best described as strongly imagining saying a word. Unfortunately, this solution would mean that we could only transmit words and only do so one at a time.
One of the more serious problems with telepathic technology would be deciding exactly what would be transmitted. Thoughts would have to converted into electrical signals, but our thoughts are usually very abstract, and the brain hides the complexities of most of its functions from our consciousness. In addition, the brain also prioritizes, categorizes and filters incoming information, so sending mere words would not only be incredibly difficult, but also incredibly incomplete when compared to the advanced level of thought that normally occurs in the mind.
In addition to all these barriers, there is also the issue that our brains, while absolutely amazing, are quite terrible. We are constantly overlooking, misinterpreting and forgetting things, and we get distracted easily and often. Just stop and think about your thoughts for a moment. Are they ordered, logical, focused and useful? Are they even coherent? The brain is a complex, damaged, dysfunctional machine, so if we want mind control, we must control our minds and do so in a much different way than we do now.
There’s also the serious and inescapable problem of connecting a human brain, which both controls our bodies and defines who we are, to a electronic device that can be forged, faulty or even compromised. That’s right, hackers could potentially gain access to our minds and monitor, steal, copy, corrupt or destroy our thoughts and memories. They could also take control our bodies, forcing us to obey their instructions, or even tell our hearts to stop beating.
Finally, though this is more of an indirect and ethical issue, it is interesting to note that even as society is beginning to recognize and prioritize the importance of regular physical activity, technology continues to alleviates us from physical duties. Standing desks, for example, have recently become a trendy way to improve our health. But with telepathically-controlled devices, we certainly don’t need a desk, and we may not even need to get out of bed. In fact, we may not need to wake up or even have bodies.
Thoughts aren’t what you thought. Think about it.