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The brain as a network device

- Wits University

Research by Wits biomedical engineers that incorporates the human brain as part of a computer network is believed to be a world-first.

Researchers in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits have connected two computers through the human brain and successfully transmitted words like ‘hello’ and ‘apple’, passively, without the user being aware that a message is present.

This research of incorporating the human brain as part of a computer network is believed to be a world-first. Dubbed ‘BrainConnect’, the proof-of-concept innovation is under review for publication in the journal Communications in Information Systems

“We don’t know of anywhere else where the brain has been used to connect two disconnected computers,” says Adam Pantanowitz, lecturer in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits and co-author of the paper with Wits alumni Rushil N. Daya and Michael N. Dukes. 

This presents an interesting theoretical system with a human literally being “in the loop”.

Morse code via light signals

BrainConnect links light, signal transmission, the visual cortex of the human brain, and two computers. It works by attaching a device to a person’s head, which links the two computers. The person passively stares at a flashing light whilst a word, for example, ‘apple’, is encoded in the light signal.

The flashing light stimulates the visual cortex in the brain and an electroencephalogram [EEG – a test that detects electrical activity in the brain] wirelessly transmits information to a second computer, which decodes the signals to appear on the second computer.

“You can think of it like Morse code via light signals,” says Pantanowitz.

BrainConnect can decipher up to 17 symbols at a rate of four seconds per symbol. The more relaxed the person is, the greater the potential to invoke a response through this ‘steady state visually evoked potential’ (SSVEP).

Pantanowitz and Dukes demonstrated BrainConnect live on MNet’s Carte Blanche on Sunday, 24 February. They wired-up presenter, Claire Mawisa, and showed how BrainConnect transmitted words through the brain, while using the brain to connect to the internet in real time (Brainternet). 

Although BrainConnect is fledgling research, Pantanowitz says this brain-computer interface [BCI] may have applications in eye-gaze devices.

“BrainConnect works simply through a light stimulus of the visual cortex. Similar eye-gaze devices serve as assistive tech to empower motor-impaired people or paraplegics. This opens up research questions about the uniqueness of brain signatures," he says. 

“Indistinguishable from magic” 

Pantanowitz cites futurists who predict greater human-tech integration by 2030. The Fourth Industrial Revolution [4IR] is already a feature of 21st Century society – human beings are already deeply connected to tech through smart phones and other close-contact devices. Research in South Africa and Africa similar to this engineering innovation at Wits University has the potential to advance 4IR. 

“Africa’s challenges need unique solutions. The brain research is being conducted under what’s known as a ‘frugal innovation’, where low-cost equipment and innovative approaches keep costs down,” says Pantanowitz. 

Another of his similarly frugal innovations was a basic robotic hand, the prototype of which cost just R1 800 in South Africa, compared to a budget of close to a million Euros for a similarly functioning device in Europe. 

Pantanowitz says, “There is potential for us in Africa to advance brain-computer interfaces and other assistive technologies. As science-fiction writer Arthur C Clark observed, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.”