Prospects for Thought Communication

Daniela Cerqui and Kevin Warwick


Technology is now becoming available which is opening up the realistic possibility of thought communication between individuals being achieved in the forthcoming decade, through the use of brain-computer implants. Indeed the first trials along these lines are even now occurring in several research labs [1, 2]. New technical methods presently being looked into (e.g. nanotechnology) are only likely to further enhance the results obtained thus far and speed up the rate of progress in this area.

Witnessing the dawning of a completely new and revolutionary technical capability for humans raises a multitude of questions in terms of the effects on all aspects of society. It is interesting to consider what we can learn by looking back to relevant new directions when they have occurred in the past. In this paper we make an attempt to indicate the chief areas of interest and have a stab at pointing to pertinent events that, we feel, relate to the situation as of now, and from which we may take heed.

It is always difficult, given any new technological discovery or invention, to realistically assess its potential future impact on and in society. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it always has a time restriction which prevents its prior use. At a particular instant, attempting to bring together commercial interests, fashion trends and political alignments is troublesome enough, let alone being faced with the effects of international incidents, extreme weather conditions and natural disasters. Yet all of these can seriously influence not only the immediate reaction to a scientific announcement but also its eventual take up and long term usage.

The particular new technology we consider here is the novel area of direct brain to brain communication between individuals. This potentially could change our human concepts of language, individual emotions and even education. Thus far a telegraphic form of communication has been successfully achieved between the nervous systems of two humans through neural signalling via implants in the nervous system. The next step, a repeat of the experiment from brain to brain appears to be straightforward enough. But, if successful, which most likely it will be, it will push humanity forward in a way that is perhaps most similar to the era when the first telephone conversations were held.

Over 45 years after the invention of the electric telegraph, on March 10th 1876 Alec Bell uttered the words “Mr. Watson – Come here – I want to see you” into a mouthpiece. At the far end of the corridor, via a brass pipe arrangement, Bell’s technician Watson heard and understood enough of the words to respond appropriately [3, 4]. There followed patent arguments, counter claims and denounciations before Bell was widely accepted as the inventor of the telephone. But even he could not have foreseen what worldwide effect it was likely to have. Within a few years the first commercial telephone calls were being made, and by the end of the century, in some circles, the telephone had become an indispensable item. Yet othersof Bell’s inventions, for example synthesisers and telex machines, took many more years to establish a foothold and when they did they were effectively reinvented in a slightly different guise.

All of this throws up a multitude of different issues surrounding the introduction of new technology. Society must be ready for it in terms of the infrastructure that exists and in terms of the mental enlightenment of its members – remember that in the case of the telephone it first made an appearance only 5 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Descent of Man”, which caused a furore on both sides of the Atlantic. Would things have been the same if the telephone had appeared 10 years earlier? Also, and of extreme importance, other technological developments must be sufficiently established and available to enable any new technology to gain a foothold.

In the earlier part of the 19th Century electricity had become more widely accepted with the invention of the electric motor and generator by Michael Faraday – along with electrolysis and batteries, important ingredients in the foundation of telephones – without the electromagnetic effect there would be no telephones as we know them.

As time passes and people change, so too do the ethical stances taken and views held. What is deemed to be ethically and morally unacceptable at one time becomes perfectly natural [5] and what is felt to be normal behaviour drowns in the mire of a shift in society and can even become illegal – prime examples in western society would be racial acceptance, drug taking, abortion on demand and homosexuality. For an extreme example we can look to the state of Virginia where, in 1972, it was still quite possible to be sterilized, whether you were happy with this or not, as the result of a number of factors including a poor score in an intelligence test [6].

So where does this leave us? We have a new technology in our grasp – thought communication. By nature, a new technology is not incremental, is not linearly related to what exists already. Predicting the nonlinearity that is the introduction of such a novel form of communication would appear to be the key. But is this possible? Can such a change be driven rather than merely observed? If so, who by?


[1] Kennedy, P., Bakay, R., Moore, M., Adams, K., Goldwaith, J. (2000), ‘Direct control of a computer from the human central nervous system’, IEEE Transactions on Rehabilitation Engineering, Vol. 8, pp. 198-202.

[2] Warwick, K., Gasson, M., Hutt, B., Goodhew, I., Kyberd, P., Schulzrinne, H. and Wu, X., “Thought Communication and Control: A First Step using Radiotelegraphy”, IEE Proceedings on Communications, Vol.151, No. 3, pp. 185 -189, 2004.

[3] Field, K., “The history of Bell’s telephone”, London, 1878

[4] Mackay, J., “Sounds out of silence”, Mainstream, 1997

[5] Cerqui, D., “The future of humankind in the era of human and computer hybridization”, Ethics and Information Technology, No3, pp. 101-108.

[6] Warwick, K., “QI: the quest for intelligence”, Piatkus, 2001.