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Fighting Pirates with ESP: University Pioneers Brain-to-Brain Communication

The city is under attack! A band of pirates is bearing down on your location, and their ships have just come into view. You’re armed with rocket launchers, but can you hold them off?

The good news, as you’ve probably guessed, is that you’re playing a video game in this scenario – your real-life confrontations with modern-day buccaneers being pretty few and far between. The bad news, however, is that you’re doing so as part of a recent brain-to-brain interface experiment conducted at the University of Washington, so you’ve been given no means of controlling the video game. The study could have serious implications for the future ability to speak brain-to-brain, in the international language of brain waves.

Pirate flag

Small consolation when the pirates overrun you, but still…

So where’s the controller? In a building across campus. Specifically, it’s in the hands of your fellow test subject. He needs only to push a button at the right moment, and your rocket launchers will send those pirates back to the depths from which they presumably came (assuming, for the purposes of this scenario, that all pirates conform to the specific set of guidelines fleshed out in Pirates of the Caribbean). The catch? He can’t see the game; the researchers have not provided him with a monitor. He’s just sitting in a dark room, and the two of you have no conventional means of communication.

What you do have, thanks to the high-tech, swim cap-esque apparatus hugging your skull, is the very latest in direct, brain-to-brain communication technology. You get a pirate in your sights and think about hitting the “fire” button. Your cross-campus counterpart, wearing the receiving end of the thought-transmitting headgear, feels his hand jerk independently and tap the controller, firing a rocket and saving the day.


The study was ambiguous as to whether you could then make him do a celebratory dance.

The device works by reading the sender’s brain activity. Since the brain works in electrical pulses, an electroencephalograph can do the job, detecting the strength and specific location of the brain activity. That data is then transmitted via internet to the recipient’s headgear, which has the capability to magnetically reproduce the activity in the recipient’s brain.

Now, the success ratio for defeating pirates using this method varied wildly – from 25 to 83% – so, for the moment, you’re better off wielding your own rocket launcher. Still, considering we’re essentially talking tech-assisted telepathy in its infancy here, even 25% success is pretty solid. The implications are staggering. Imagine being able to learn from a professor, or an expert in your field, without relying on them to find the right words. Imagine a pilot or heavy equipment operator, controlling their craft remotely, mentally, from thousands of miles away. Think of the impact on global relations that comes with bypassing speech entirely, and communicating worldwide in a “language” of thoughts and intentions.


Oversharing will continue to be an obstacle.

Dr. Andrea Stocco, who conducted the experiment, believes that given the pace of advancement in neuroscience and technology, brain-to-brain communication will be put to viable, practical use sometime in the next few decades. And as much as this reads like science fiction, our modern, tech-based means of communicating – Wi-Fi, smartphones, and video relay, for example – likely seemed every bit as fictional to someone living 100 years ago. Every new advance brings us one step closer to that age-old ideal of seamless communication across languages, cultures, and geographic regions, and brain-to-brain communication may well be the breakthrough that gets us there.

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