Science Behind the Fiction: How close are we to Pacific Rim's mind-melding drift?

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Mar 20, 2018

The date is August 10, 2013. The location: Challenger Deep, the deepest known point on Earth. In the murky depths of the Mariana Trench tectonic activity fuels an atomic reaction no one could have predicted and a breach opens up between worlds.

Through the rift — a crack not only in the mantle of the earth but in the very fabric of reality — monsters emerge. Kaiju, massive creatures from another world, wreak havoc on coastal cities all along the Pacific Ocean. In response, the United Nations green-lights Dr. Schoenfeld's Jaeger Program as part of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps to defend the world against this threat.

Almost overnight, a battle between massive, complex robotic battle mechs and gargantuan alien creatures was in full swing. But complications would arise. As the Jaegers increased in complexity, the ability of a single pilot to work them became unfeasible.

And by sheer accident, in the throes of an almost fatal attempt to hold back an inter-dimensional villain, humans discover the drift. It's this that we'll dig into today. How close are humans to Guillermo del Toro's emotionally vulnerable, unbelievably powerful mind-melding technology from Pacific Rim?

Del Toro has been thrilling us with tales of monsters both terrible and wonderful for more than two decades. From Mimic to Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth to this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture, The Shape of Water, the man knows how to enthrall audiences with engaging critters. But his most commercially successful property is 2013's Pacific Rim, the film that brought us what we've all secretly been hoping for, robots versus aliens.

While on the surface Pacific Rim harvests all the seeds planted in our youth by Power Rangers — with human heroes donning robotic costumes to beat back foes — it hits on deeper philosophical and scientific questions. Namely, it presses on the boundaries of what it means to be an individual, it frays the line between where one person ends and another begins. While a less equipped director might have been satisfied with the pyrotechnics of metal fists against alien flesh, del Toro wasn't satisfied until he questioned the nature of what it is to be a person.

Piloting a Jaeger required not just the fortitude to stand against an unbeatable enemy, but the willingness to open one's mind to another, the courage to offer up the most vulnerable parts of oneself. In a world wherein we're already so exposed through social media, Pacific Rim asked us if we were wiling to open to door to our very minds to someone else.

Since the advent of the internet, we've all been clamoring, whether with intent or without forethought, to share the details of our lives with anyone who would listen. As technologies have advanced, our ability to share our thoughts and feelings with an ever-increasing audience has evolved. So far, we've been limited by the tools at our disposal, specifically, the mouse and keyboard.

What if we could eliminate those tools and communicate directly, one mind to another? What if we could utilize the full power of our minds and drift like the Jaeger pilots of Pacific Rim?

The internet of brains

It started, as it almost always does, with animals. Researchers at Duke University connected the minds of four laboratory rats to create an organic computer. They were able to harness the computational abilities of the rat's minds to achieve results that no one rat could accomplish. Using these combined brains, they were able to achieve image processing and even weather forecasting.

Once brain-to-brain interfaces were proven in animals, the next obvious arena was to connect one human mind to another. While ethical regulations limit the types of invasive procedures that can be attempted, medical technology offers the tools necessary to connect human thought without scalpel or drill.

Taking advantage of EEG machines, which measure electrical signals from outside a subject's brain, researchers at the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences were able to capture brain waves from a subject and transmit them to a second party located in another building across campus.

The test utilized a video game wherein the subject saw a target they wanted to fire upon, however, the ability to fire was isolated to a second subject in another location. Whenever the first subject saw a target, they would think about firing and that signal would be interpreted by the EEG into a signal that would be transmitted, across campus, to a second individual. The second party wore a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil, which would deliver an electrical current that would then trigger the wearer's hand and fire.

"The first time I didn't even realize my hand had moved. I was just waiting for something to happen," test subject Andrea Stocco said in response to the test.

In essence, the fire command was transferred from the first mind and carried out by the second. At the moment, brain-to-brain interfaces are rudimentary in comparison to Pacific Rim's. But at least one government entity hopes to utilize computer-brain interfaces to engage in future military combat.

DARPA has experimented with the ability to control an aircraft, in virtual space, with a human mind. While they have maintained that their intent is only to develop better prosthetics for injured combat veterans, the potential impact of future warfare tactics are implicit.

As our technology advances, so too does our connection and reliance to it. We can hope that no threat emerges from elsewhere like the Kaiju through the rift, but if it does, we can rest easy in the ability to put our heads together in virtual space and win the day.

Pacific Rim: Uprising hits theaters on March 23.