Image: Katie Zhuang, Duke University
The internet of brains is coming, the internet of brains is here. The brains of four rats have been interconnected to create a "Brainet" capable of completing computational tasks better than any one of the rats would have been able to on its own.
It's the latest successful experiment out of a Duke University laboratory that has been consistently publishing research that seems to have more of a place in science fiction than in reality. Here, for instance, is how Miguel Nicolelis's most recent paper, published in Scientific Reports, begins:
"Recently, we proposed that Brainets, i.e. networks formed by multiple animal brains, cooperating and exchanging information in real time through direct brain-to-brain interfaces, could provide the core of a new type of computing device: an organic computer. Here, we describe the first experimental demonstration of such a Brainet, built by interconnecting four adult rat brains."
It's not just the rats, however. Nicolelis published a second paper, also in Scientific Reports, describing a Brainet that allows three monkeys connected at the brain to control a virtual arm on screen across three axes.
"We started asking the question in 2011: What happens when you have multiple subjects trying to achieve a goal no single brain can achieve individually," Nicolelis told me. "We quickly realized we'd need to synchronize the brains to complete complex tasks."
Monkeys working together to control a virtual hand. Image: Katie Zhuang, Duke University
It turns out that getting the animals to sync their brains wasn't actually all that difficult. In the case of the monkeys, they were trained to operate a virtual monkey hand onscreen using only their brains (this was quite a breakthrough in and of itself and was the subject of one of Nicolelis's papers from 2011). Nicolelis also developed the brain-controlled prosthesis demoed at the 2014 World Cup.
Then, the monkeys' brains were wired together and part of the control was taken away—each one was only able to control the movement across one axis. Within days, the monkeys had learned, on their own with no prompting from Nicolelis, how to control the arm to grab virtual objects.
He then wanted to see if he could "create a superbrain formed out of individual brains," he told me, which is where the rat study came in.
Image: Katie Zhuang, Duke University
In that one, rats were deprived of water and were given it only if they were able to synchronize their brains together to complete a task. From there, Nicolelis essentiality turned these rats into processors.
"Once we saw we could make them behave coherently, we built a new type of computer—we did the type of tests anyone who knows about processors would do with a piece of silicon. Can we store information and can we recall it later? Can we have a memory?" he said. "It turns out that, if the animals are awake, we can."
Nicolelis wrote in the paper that he was able to make the rat Brainet do a number of "useful computational problems, such as discrete classification, image processing, storage and retrieval of tactile information, and even weather forecasting."
Most importantly, "Brainets consistently performed at the same or higher levels than single rats in these tasks."
In one test, for instance, different rats brains were given different barometric pressure and temperature information, and then the computational power of the Brainet itself was used to calculate the probability that it would rain (given those inputs) at a rate higher than chance.
Image: Scientific Reports
Nicolelis said that, essentially, he created a "classic artificial neural network using brains." In that sense, it's not artificial at all.
How organic computers will work in the future is anyone's guess, but Nicolelis told me that there are potential applications that could come in the near future. It sounds as though he's hoping we could harness biology to perform tasks that are difficult to do mechanically—it's a theory similar to using bacteria's natural processes in manufacturing, for example.
"These computers will not do word processing or numerical calculation or internet searches, they will be tailored for very specific tasks like what animals are tailored for," he said. "It's a totally different kind of vision for computation that we're not used to."
The Brainet regularly outperformed individual rats in experiments. Image: Scientific Reports
Though these animals had electrodes implanted directly in the brain, he says his team is working on methods to create noninvasive human Brainets. You could, for instance, hook a stroke victim up to a therapist or doctor and the stroke victim may be able to regain some sort of function by tapping into the therapist's brain power.
"We think with physical therapies and patients, we can help them learn quicker, train quicker by connecting these brain signals in a totally noninvasive way," he said. "This is the internet of brains. In a sense, when people are already using the internet, you're synchronizing your brain already—but in the future, that same thing could happen without you typing or using your mouse."