Who doesn’t love giant robots? Guillermo del Toro’s movie, which have seen its sequel coming out last year under the name of “Pacific Rim – The revolt”, showed us the battle between the Jaegers, the colossal humanoid machines led by two pilots, and the Kaiju, the huge monsters from the breach opened by an extraterrestrial civilization in the depths of the Pacific Ocean.
Engineers have dreamed more than once about building the Iron Man suit, but also of Vultus V-style robots. But what’s real about the neural technology that allows two people to connect their minds and move a 7000 tons robot?
The drifting from Pacific Rim
Technically, Jaegers are not robots because they need pilots to work. They are huge war machines that need two minds, one for the right hemisphere and the other one for the left one. Since one would not be able to control something so gigantic. The more compatible these minds are, the easier it will be to use the robots in battle.
In order to do this, they use a mechanism called “drifting” (or drift) that connects the brains of the two pilots, making them share their memories in order to transform them into one with the machine.
Currently, developments in the field of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) are a shy step towards this science-fiction technology. BCIs are based on the well-known electroencephalography of medical technology.Although, today’s applications (mouse control or typing text with only thought) are comparatively coarse compared to the rapid real-time movements shown in Pacific Rim.
Two is always better than one
Some studies, including one from the University of Essex, showed that two minds would be more effective for driving a simulated spaceship through a BCI just as the film proposes. The research was presented at the International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces held in 2013 in Santa Monica, California.
The EEG signals of a single brain may prove to be weak or not constant, especially if attention is diminished. The addition of a second brain could produce clearer EEG signals as well as compensate for moments of weakness in the companion brain.
Another study, published in the journal “PLoS One”, went beyond the control with two people and examined the effect of having groups of 5, 10, 15 and 20 subjects that cooperated through a BCI. The results showed a substantial improvement both in the response time and in the precision of a movement by the machine.
Another aspect already tested in reality is the possibility of sharing thoughts between two people.
A team of scientists led by Dr. Giulio Ruffini of “Starlab Barcelona”, in Spain, successfully transmitted the words “hola” and “ciao” between two subjects using the electroencephalogram and the technologies, robotized and guided by images, of transcranial magnetic stimulation, connected together through the Internet.
We wanted to find out if one could communicate directly between two people by reading out the brain activity from one person and injecting brain activity into the second person, and do so across great physical distances by leveraging existing communication pathways.
~ researcher Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone
Four volunteers, with ages between 28 and 50, participated in the study. One was assigned to the BCI that sent the words, the rest were assigned to the computer-brain interface (CBI) to receive messages and understand them. The first interface was in India and the second in France, 8046 km away.
A similar experiment was also conducted among individuals in Spain and France. The total error rate was 15%, 11% in decoding and 5% at initial coding.
“Although certainly limited in nature these initial results suggest new research directions, including the non-invasive direct transmission of emotions and feelings or the possibility of sense synthesis in humans”, the researchers said.
So in our future will there be giant robots driven by a pair of pilots? Probably not, but a collective BCI could lead to a more efficient relationship with digital activities such as database analysis or even video games.