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Are Made For Love's brain-to-brain interfaces real? The Science Behind the Fiction

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Apr 28, 2021, 3:17 PM EDT (Updated)

It's difficult to imagine science fiction, as a genre, absent the notion of technology gone wrong. The overwhelming majority of our most beloved sci-fi tales feature some scientific process or technological gadget operating at its most terrifying extreme. However, if you really stop to examine those stories, it's rarely the fault of the technology itself. More often, the sci-fi gadgetry operates precisely as it's designed. The real horror comes from the people at the helm. That's especially true when it comes to HBO Max's Made For Love.

The show is based on Alissa Nutting's 2017 novel of the same name and stars Cristin Milioti as Hazel Green-Gogol, protagonist and unwitting neo-tech guinea pig. Hazel is married to tech magnate Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), a stand-in for any number of real-life tech billionaires (Musk and Zuckerberg come to mind).

Byron has crafted a chip that, when implanted in the brain of two participants, links their minds completely. The idea is to achieve perfect relationships by creating one identity living in two people. Byron and Hazel's relationship was already strained, but when he announces that the two of them will be the first participants of the new program, it's a bridge too far for Hazel. She escapes the compound they live in as well as their marriage, only to discover Byron has already implanted the chip while she was unaware. He can track her, he can see through her eyes, and he can measure her every emotion.

Made For Love takes an actual emerging technology, couples it with an egregious abuse of power, and explores the worst potential outcomes. Which may cause you to wonder if you're actually at risk of some future paramour hijacking your mind.

BRAIN-TO-BRAIN INTERFACE

Technology like this seems like it's futuristic sci-fi, but real-life brain-to-brain interfaces have been used both in non-human animal studies and in humans.

The obvious use case of brain-to-brain connection is in circumventing the usual means of communication: speech and body language. One can imagine how this technology might allow users to communicate instantaneously, across vast distances. Users could communicate fully, as intended, without anything being lost in translation, so to speak. We might communicate across language barriers or express feelings without needing to describe them. Imagine being able to fully experience the inner mind of another person with all of the nuance that entails.

The truth of contemporary brain interfaces is a little less elegant, a little weirder, and entirely ethically questionable.

In a pair of studies, researchers were able to create a network of brains among both rats and Rhesus monkeys. In each case, researchers connected multiple individuals in such a way that signals from one or more of their brains influenced the actions of others.

In the case of the rats, data related to weather predictions were fed into the system stimulating a physical act, like pulling a lever. The monkeys, however, worked collectively to manipulate an artificial limb.

There is skepticism among the scientific community about the utility of these experiments. Some see it as proof that networked brains have enhanced performative abilities, while others see it as little more than a parlor trick.

One thing is clear: That thoughts and emotions are not being transmitted. Instead, these test animals are learning to use this novel system to complete tasks. And these tasks are relatively mundane, giving little indication as to the real-world application of the technology. It is successful, though, in confirming a sort of proof of concept that information can be passed from one individual to another.

Human studies suggest similar results. While some futurists see brain-to-brain connectivity as the next step in human evolution, the current results are less exciting.

In a study utilizing non-invasive electroencephalographs (EEGs), three individuals worked together to play a game. Two participants were designated as "senders," while the third was the "receiver."

The senders were able to see a block but were not able to manipulate it. The third could manipulate but couldn't see. The goal was to correctly orient the block. To be clear, the receiver did not receive direct instruction by way of voice, thought, or feeling. Instead, the senders focused on flashing lights depending on which instruction they wanted to send.

Those signals were interpreted by the interface and sent to the receiver who either moved the block or didn't, depending on what they perceived. The results of both human and non-human studies are intriguing but preliminary.

CONTROL

More troubling, in the context presented by Made For Love, is a study involving the control of an implanted animal receiver by a human sender. This is where we get into the real "are we the baddies?" territory.

In this study, rats were implanted with electrodes while the human controllers were fitted with EEGs. Rats were then placed at the start of a simple maze, directed to the center, and instructed to move down one of eight arms before turning around. The nuts and bolts of this experiment are similar to what we've previously seen, with one mind delivering instruction to another. But it differs in a couple of key elements. First, it illustrates the possibility of information delivery between brains of disparate species. Second, it allows for the control of one mind by another.

The rats involved were trained and likely weren't compelled to act in a way that might suggest a circumvention of will. Still, these are the sort of results that suggest the possibility of abuse. When it comes to external brain stimulation, where exactly does the will of one individual end and the other begin?

Despite all this, there's little reason to worry today, unless you're a laboratory rat. These technologies require either implanted electrodes that you're unlikely to have without your prior consent, or the use of EEGs that are easily removed.

More importantly, the signals received are abstract — flashing lights that need to be learned and interpreted. We're nowhere near being able to receive direct thoughts or suggestions. There is so much we still have to learn about the way the brain works, and how we might use those processes to communicate with machines or with one another.

While the base technology allowing for simple communication between minds or machines does exist today, we're a long way from the sort of direct and discreet communication or control presented in Made For Love.

There is likely some utility for these systems, particularly as it relates to individuals in need of prosthetics or other brain-to-machine interfaces, but as it stands today, you need not worry about your significant other hijacking your mind in order to play out some macabre control scenario. Made For Love is an equally humorous and dark exploration of consent and the cost to relationships in an increasingly technological world, but that's all it is.