Man and machine merge inside robots the size of skyscrapers to do battle against equally huge monsters in the film "Pacific Rim." The Hollywood technobabble used to explain why two human pilots must control the huge robots is pure science fiction, but real scientific studies have found promise in the idea of two minds being better than one—at least in brain-computer interfaces.
First, the technobabble. "Pacific Rim," directed by Guillermo del Toro, plays with the idea of human pilots merging minds and memories to jointly control the huge humanoid robots called Jaegers. One pilot controls the left hemisphere and the other pilot controls the right hemisphere of each Jaeger's "brain"—supposedly because a single pilot can't handle the "neural load" for interfacing with the gigantic machines. If the two pilots punch or run in unison, so does the Jaeger.
The display of mind control in "Pacific Rim" remains just a fantasy for researchers working with real brain-computer interfaces (also known as brain-machine interfaces). Certain technologies such as electroencephalography (EEG) headsets or caps have allowed humans to practice crude mind control over flying quadrotor drones and even cars. But limits in EEG's ability to detect the human brain's electrical signals mean that brain-computer interface users must concentrate to do even the simplest tasks.
Here is where two minds can prove better than one. A University of Essex paper on "cooperative brain-computer interfaces" found that two people could produce clearer and more consistent EEG signals than just one person while attempting to exert mind control over a simulated spaceship.
The results still proved more cumbersome than, say, using a joystick, but they hint at how cooperation could pave the way for brain-computer interface technology to become more effective. Ricardo Poli, a computer science professor at the University of Essex, in the U.K., presented the work with his colleagues at the 2013 International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces in Santa Monica, Calif.
Similarly intriguing results on cooperative brain-computer interfaces came from a 2011 paper published in the journal PLoS One. Two researchers from the University of California in San Diego found that the accuracy of EEG predicting an arm-reaching motion improved dramatically by fusing the EEG signals from groups of five, 10, 15, and 20 people.
Such results are still a far cry from Hollywood fantasies of two pilots controlling a giant robot with the same natural ease of moving their own bodies. And perhaps brain-computer interfaces will improve to the point where they can effectively detect the brain signals from a single person. But for now, the idea of two heads being better than one for mind-control technology has a kernel of truth.
Photo: Warner Bros.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.