In the UK, a professor at Southampton has invented a real telepathy machine:
We are about to make history. As long as these electrodes don’t electrocute me first, I am seconds away from becoming the first journalist in the universe to try the professor’s telepathy machine.
He doesn’t call it a telepathy machine, of course. He’s a scientist so it’s called the brain-to-brain communication experiment, or B2B. Still, my brain is about to read his daughter’s brain. Gwyneth and I will communicate solely by brain wave. Which, in my unscientific book, is telepathy.
The “professor” is actually Dr Christopher James, a pioneering biomedical engineer at Southampton University, and his invention makes fact out of science fiction. Decades from now we won’t be phoning home to say the train’s late. We’ll be thinking it. Soldiers will take orders from their commanding officers cerebrally and minds imprisoned in disabled bodies will be free to communicate with others via cyberspace. Centuries from now, one evil dictator will misappropriate the brain-to-brain technology, take over all our minds and destroy us.
Right now we’re at the very beginning of this revolutionary journey. I’m at one end of an anonymous office on the university campus with two electrodes stuck to the back of my head (and one, alarmingly, on the front “for grounding”). Gwyneth is sitting at the other end thinking either “left” or “right”. Two electrodes are connecting her to a computer that can tell, from her brain waves, what she is thinking.
It then passes this information, via the internet, to my computer, which flashes a series of lights at me. I can’t tell the difference — it’s all far too quick — but my brain can. My electrodes detect the same sequence of lefts and rights that Gwyneth is thinking. In short, my brain has read her brain. Eureka.
James is keen to point out his invention’s limitations. If his 11-year-old daughter thought of a cat or Venezuela or how she’d much rather be out tobogganing than sitting here thinking of left and right, I wouldn’t know it. We can only do lefts and rights. Nevertheless, non-verbal communication has arrived.
“These are the very first baby steps towards communication by thought,” James explains. “It is not impossible to imagine a future where this direct brain-to-brain interaction is commonplace. But we have a long way to go in terms of the speed, accuracy and robustness of the technology.”
He likens the thought processes of a brain to a cocktail party. Except that it’s a cocktail party attended by 100 billion guests and they’re all jabbering away noisily at the same time: “What we’re trying to do is eavesdrop on individual conversations at that cocktail party but we’re trying to do it from outside the building. Currently, the eavesdropping is fairly crude.”
The external sensors that James uses to measure the tiny electrical currents generated when we think are haphazard. They pick up interference, they mix up signals and, frequently, James has to glue them back on when they fall off. New ones are being developed but, says James, “the point where we can measure hundreds of thought waves in isolation is still a long way off”.
The alternative is to ditch the sensors and bury electrodes directly in the brain. Invasive brain-computer interfacing is far more controversial but also far more accurate and it has already been tested in America. In 2005 Matt Nagle, a college football star left tetraplegic after a stabbing, became the first person to control an artificial hand through thought. He had a 96-electrode chip implanted on the surface of his brain. A computer was then programmed to recognise Nagle’s thought patterns, enabling him to operate the robot hand.
“I can’t put it into words,” said Nagle during the trial. “It’s just — I use my brain. I just thought it. It will give me a sense of independence.”
James believes the non-invasive route to brain-computer interaction is a more feasible one. He speculates that the holy grail of full thought-controlled navigation — a life-changing concept for the severely physically disabled — could be achieved in decades.
The next watershed is when computers become faster at reacting to our thoughts than our own bodies, when a tiny chip in your glasses can understand millions of brain waves in millionths of seconds. It is still a long way off but is by no means unimaginable.
Full brain-to-brain communication is certainly further off and faces significant hurdles. While progress in reading thoughts is rapid, passing those thoughts to another human being is fraught with both scientific and ethical problems. Since announcing his breakthrough in direct communication, James has received letters imploring him to desist in his mad science. People are gravely concerned that his team’s work will lead to an underclass of zombies controlled by the scientists of tomorrow.
I wouldn’t worry. Quite apart from the sheer complexity of reproducing the exact electrical and magnetic stimuli to precise areas of the brain that trigger thoughts and movements, the amount of electrodes (and accompanied drilling) that would be required is something of a stumbling block.
Back in the office I have swapped places with Gwyneth. I’m thinking left, right, left, left but the computer claimed that I had thought four lefts in a row. If I was in a thought-controlled wheelchair I would have shot down the stairs by now. The computer needs time to learn my brain waves. I need time to learn how to imagine right and left clearly enough for the computer to understand.
Frankly, I’d rather be out tobogganing as well. And even though it is conceivable that James’s invention will one day be viewed with the same breathlessness as Archimedes’s momentous night in his hot tub, right now I can’t help thinking it’s simply good to talk.
Human ancestors that left Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago to see the rest of the world were no landlubbers. Stone hand axes unearthed on the Mediterranean island of Crete indicate that an ancient Homospecies — perhaps Homo erectus — had used rafts or other seagoing vessels to cross from northern Africa to Europe via at least some of the larger islands in between, says archaeologist Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island.
Several hundred double-edged cutting implements discovered at nine sites in southwestern Crete date to at least 130,000 years ago and probably much earlier, Strasser reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Archaeology. Many of these finds closely resemble hand axes fashioned in Africa about 800,000 years ago by H. erectus, he says. It was around that time that H. erectus spread from Africa to parts of Asia and Europe.
Until now, the oldest known human settlements on Crete dated to around 9,000 years ago. Traditional theories hold that early farming groups in southern Europe and the Middle East first navigated vessels to Crete and other Mediterranean islands at that time.
“We’re just going to have to accept that, as soon as hominids left Africa, they were long-distance seafarers and rapidly spread all over the place,” Strasser says. The traditional view has been that hominids (specifically, H. erectus) left Africa via land routes that ran from the Middle East to Europe and Asia. Other researchers have controversially suggested that H. erectus navigated rafts across short stretches of sea in Indonesia around 800,000 years ago and that Neandertals crossed the Strait of Gibraltar perhaps 60,000 years ago.
Questions remain about whether African hominids used Crete as a stepping stone to reach Europe or, in a Stone Age Gilligan’s Island scenario, accidentally ended up on Crete from time to time when close-to-shore rafts were blown out to sea, remarks archaeologist Robert Tykot of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Only in the past decade have researchers established that people reached Crete before 6,000 years ago, Tykot says.
Strasser’s team cannot yet say precisely when or for what reason hominids traveled to Crete. Large sets of hand axes found on the island suggest a fairly substantial population size, downplaying the possibility of a Gilligan Island’s scenario, in Strasser’s view.
In excavations conducted near Crete’s southwestern coast during 2008 and 2009, Strasser’s team unearthed hand axes at caves and rock shelters. Most of these sites were situated in an area called Preveli Gorge, where a river has gouged through many layers of rocky sediment.
At Preveli Gorge, Stone Age artifacts were excavated from four terraces along a rocky outcrop that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Tectonic activity has pushed older sediment above younger sediment on Crete, so 130,000-year-old artifacts emerged from the uppermost terrace. Other terraces received age estimates of 110,000 years, 80,000 years and 45,000 years.
These minimum age estimates relied on comparisons of artifact-bearing sediment to sediment from sea cores with known ages. Geologists are now assessing whether absolute dating techniques can be applied to Crete’s Stone Age sites, Strasser says.
Intriguingly, he notes, hand axes found on Crete were made from local quartz but display a style typical of ancient African artifacts.
“Hominids adapted to whatever material was available on the island for tool making,” Strasser proposes. “There could be tools made from different types of stone in other parts of Crete.”
Strasser has conducted excavations on Crete for the past 20 years. He had been searching for relatively small implements that would have been made from chunks of chert no more than 11,000 years ago. But a current team member, archaeologist Curtis Runnels of Boston University, pointed out that Stone Age folk would likely have favored quartz for their larger implements. “Once we started looking for quartz tools, everything changed,” Strasser says.