Hyderabad-born Professor Rajesh PN Rao created headlines across the world when he moved his colleague’s right hand by thinking of doing it.
The Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington talks to us about how he felt when he realised he had moved his colleague’s finger, the myths of mind control and the uses of his findings in medicine…
Tell us a little about yourself…
I did all of my schooling in India at Kendriya Vidyalaya Kanchanbagh in Hyderabad near the DRDO labs.
I left India when I was 18 to go to college in the US and earned a Bachelor's degree at a Texas university in Computer Science and Mathematics with a minor in Physics. I did my PhD in Computer Science at the University of Rochester and my postdoctoral studies at the Salk Institute in San Diego. I am currently Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.
My wife, Dr Anu Taranathm is also a professor at the same university, and leads a study abroad program to Bangalore. My father PN AP Rao is a retired avionics director of the LCA project and my mother Dr Kamali Rao is a retired professor in English language teaching.
How long have you been working on brain-to-brain interaction? How did you get involved in it?
We have only been working on brain-to-brain interaction for the past one year though I got the idea for it in 2011 and started discussing it with my collaborator Andrea Stocco.
It took a while to set up the experiment and get the human subjects approval, which was for only two subjects (myself and Andrea).
For over a decade, my laboratory has been working in the area of brain-computer interfacing which involves developing brain-controlled prosthetic devices for the paralyzed and disabled. The idea of brain-to-brain interaction can be seen as an application of technologies being used in brain-computer interfacing and cognitive psychology.
What did that moment feel like when you realised that your visualisation had caused your colleague's hand to move?
It was exciting. I did not actually see his hand move but the fact that the target had been hit in the game made me realise only later that the experiment had succeeded.
I began wondering if this was how Alexander Graham Bell must have felt when he realised after the fact that his voice had been successfully transmitted electrically.
We've seen a few sensational headlines on mind control. What do you have to say to this?
I would like to dispel fears of mind control and mind reading because it is not possible with the technology that we demonstrated.
Only a very rudimentary form of brain-to-brain transmission of information was demonstrated. For something like mind reading or mind control, we need to have a very deep knowledge of how the brain works and we are not there yet.
Can you tell us about how your demonstration with Stocco can help people? What are its uses?
Since the technology needed for brain-to-brain communication requires us to find better ways of interpreting brain signals and better ways of delivering information to the brain, we feel that progress in this area will ultimately lead to better brain-controlled prosthetic devices for the paralysed and better sensory prostheses for the blind and deaf.
In the distant future, it is possible that brain-to-brain communication could allow transfer of nonverbal skills such as abstract mathematical concepts that are hard to explain using language - however, that will require a lot of progress in neuroscience and neurotechnology.