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April 12, 2019updated 15 Apr 2019 4:07pm

Nanorobots in the brain may make it possible to access the internet simply by thinking

By Ellen Daniel

20 years ago, the thought of household objects being connected to the internet may have seemed like a far-off possibility. However, with an estimated 26.66bn devices now connected to the internet, the Internet of Things is now an everyday reality.

Some experts predict that the next generation of computing may arrive within the next 100 years. They believe it may soon be possible to access the internet via thoughts alone through a concept called the “internet of thoughts”. Whether this seems like a futuristic dream or a dystopian nightmare, a team of scientists believe that this could become the norm in the not too distant future.

An international collaboration led by researchers at UC Berkeley and the US Institute for Molecular Manufacturing predicts that the progress in nanotechnology, nanomedicine and artificial intelligence will lead to the development of a “Human Brain/Cloud Interface” before the end of the century.

The researchers believe that by connecting brain cells to vast cloud-computing networks in real time, it may soon be possible to instantly access the internet simply by thinking about a specific topic or question.

How would the “internet of thoughts” work?

Robert Freitas, Jr., senior author of the research, believes that the answer lies with nanorobots. He predicts that they could be used to provide real-time monitoring and control signals to and from brain cells.

These could be used to connect the neocortex, the part of the brain that controls hearing and sight, to a “synthetic neocortex” in the cloud, allowing “Matrix”-style downloading of information to the brain.

Freitas explains how the devices would function from inside the brain:

“These devices would navigate the human vasculature, cross the blood-brain barrier, and precisely autoposition themselves among, or even within brain cells. They would then wirelessly transmit encoded information to and from a cloud-based supercomputer network for real-time brain-state monitoring and data extraction.”

When could this happen?

The idea of having a device within the brain may be unnerving for many, but similar devices have already been developed. A company called NeuroPace has developed a sensor for people with epilepsy that sits within a patient’s head to monitor brain activity and help prevent seizures.

However, for the internet of thoughts to fully take off, supercomputers will need to be able to process the large volumes of neural data necessary for a Human Brain/Cloud Interface, but as computing capabilities advance, this may soon be possible.

The main barrier is developing the necessary technology to allow data exchange between neurons and the nanorobots. One solution proposed by the authors is the use of ‘magnetoelectric nanoparticles’ to amplify communication between neurons and the cloud.

Lead author Dr. Nuno Martins explains how this could work:

“These nanoparticles have been used already in living mice to couple external magnetic fields to neuronal electric fields – that is, to detect and locally amplify these magnetic signals and so allow them to alter the electrical activity of neurons. This could work in reverse, too: electrical signals produced by neurons and nanorobots could be amplified via magnetoelectric nanoparticles, to allow their detection outside of the skull.”

In the future, this technology might also allow us to create a “global superbrain” that would connect networks of individual human brains and AIs to enable collective thought. An early version of this technology, called BrainNet, has already been tested.

Martins believes that this could improve communication and information exchange:

“While not yet particularly sophisticated, an experimental human ‘BrainNet’ system has already been tested, enabling thought-driven information exchange via the cloud between individual brains. It used electrical signals recorded through the skull of ‘senders’ and magnetic stimulation through the skull of ‘receivers,’ allowing for performing cooperative tasks.

Read more: This company is trialling thought-to-text brain computer interface technology