Telepathy – Fantasy or nearly Reality?

here’s an old post from literally years ago on the topic of human brain interfaces.  I just discovered it languishing in the wordpress drafts section.  Not sure how dated it is now (given 7 years of progress since I wrote this) but it would be good to hear what you think today…

I thought it might be fun to revisit some old territory to see how close we are to being magicians. As you doubtless recall, Arthur C. Clarke said that, beyond a certain limit, advanced technology looks like magic. Gene Wolfe even more tellingly said that’s “there is no magic, only knowledge, more or less hidden“. It’s a more telling observation, I think, because the path to a magical technological realm lies in ever more sophisticated use and gathering of knowledge by our machines.

Telepathy is the stuff of fantasy, right? Wrong! Well, maybe. I classify it as direct communication between brains without the need for vocal utterances. I think it might be interesting to review where technology now stands on the road to delivering on this long-cherished dream. It might be even more amusing to look back on this blog post in only a few years and smile ruefully at how primitive our technology was.

We know from information theory that all communication requires a series of channels through which information can pass. What we’re talking about here is removing a few of the channels that we currently need to express our thoughts to others. What are those channels? Here’s a simple list of the kinds of channels that we know get used when we talk.

  1. Thought in the brain (source)
  2. Sent to auditory cortex
  3. Sent to cerebellum
  4. Sent to various nerve fibers to muscles in the mouth, lungs, face etc
  5. Sent to the air as acoustic vibrations
  6. Sent to the ear canal by reflection from the outer ear
  7. Sent to nerves by vibrations on hairs in the inner ear
  8. Carried to auditory cortex
  9. Distributed to brain for retrieval of concepts
  10. Thoughts in head of receiver

Telepathy lies in circumventing the ‘mechanical’ channels (4 – 7) in the communication process. It must be done in real time, otherwise this blog post would count as a form of telepathy already. I’m not superstitious, so I don’t think there is any faery-land etheric continuum through which telepathic impulses travel instantaneously. there must be some real-world medium

Much of the progress in the last 60 years in technology has involved work needed to replace one or more of these channels. How far away are we from replacing the whole middle section?

Lets assume for now that we have some kind of cellular network to carry our thoughts and an addressing mechanism to identify the person were wish to talk to. All we have to do is solve the problem of getting information onto and off the network at its boundaries.

So, are there ways already to detect information while it’s still in the head? Well, yes, but to level of detail we need to replace vocal communications. Is there any chance that we will be able to detect the thoughts in enough detail to preserve the information content of the channels. Or seems so. The resolution of brain scanners is following a similar power law to Moore’s law, so we should see machines valuables of gathering detailed information and powerful enough to Decode it and encode it pin the fly for sending onto the network.

Maybe there’s still some point in doing it even if we don’t have the resolution needed to detect the fine details of thoughts – we can give a broad brushed outline of a person’s thoughts. That might feel like empathy.

Data Loss
As you can see, there are lot of channels through which the information flows when we talk. At each stage noise interferes with the flow.

and there it ended…

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