From Smoke Signals to Brain Waves

Communicating is inherent to human beings, who for millennia have been developing technological solutions to overcome the great obstacle of communication: distance. The smoke signals and whistled languages ​​devised by our ancestors began to address this problem, which a chain of inventions (from the telegraph to the Internet) have finally left solved… or almost solved. Brain waves and augmented reality promise to be the first step towards the next technological leap. What is the next barrier that human communication will overcome?

Codes between nearby points

Upon the election of a new Pope, the Vatican emits fumatas, columns of smoke that are also used in rescue and military missions. They are one of the few uses that are maintained of a communication system with an ancestral origin. In ancient China, the soldiers stationed at the Great Wall used the smoke from the bonfires that they set in their towers to warn of enemy presence. This type of communication was faster, safer, and more immediate than sending a soldier with the message. During the Tang Dynasty, the warriors used wolf droppings in signal fires in the belief that this would ensure that the smoke did not disperse with the wind.

Nowadays, smoke signals are used in rescue and military missions. Credit: Airman Magazine

Nowadays, smoke signals are used in rescue and military missions. Credit: Airman Magazine

The ancient Greeks also liked this technique. There is evidence that around the first century BC, the historian Polybius developed a more sophisticated smoke signal system, which permitted the transmission of letters, based on his famous “Polybius Square”—a code in which each letter of the alphabet is replaced by the coordinates of its position in the square. Another smoke code, but much less sophisticated, was the one used by the American Indians. One puff meant a call of attention, two indicated that everything was going well and three that they had problems.

In addition to this system, whistling was also used to transmit messages in real time between areas separated by several kilometres. Nowadays, a number of communities still preserve this auditory code composed of whistles as an identity signal.

Long distances are no longer a problem

In the nineteenth century, communication over long distances was strengthened. The development of writing had been the “before” and “after” in the transmission of knowledge, but many centuries would have to pass from the time of the pharaohs and the great empires before humans would overcome their dependence on human or animal messengers to carry information from one place to another.

Between the 9th and 17th centuries, the European countries professionalized their postal systems and, in 1840, England introduced pre-paid postage on letters. With the Treaty of Berne, signed on October 9, 1874, the postal services were unified into a single postal territory and what is now the Universal Postal Union was created, streamlining communications.

Telegraph designed by Alfred Vail for the Baltimore-Washington line. Credit: National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution.

Telegraph designed by Alfred Vail for the Baltimore-Washington line. Credit: National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution.

In parallel with postage, another tool came along that also covered great distances and, in addition, transmitted the message almost immediately—the telegraph. In 1836, Americans Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail demonstrated that it was possible to transmit information with electrical signals travelling along cables.

The code they developed, the Morse, was divided into short and long signals. To prove that the telegraph line constructed between Washington and Baltimore (USA) worked, on May 24, 1844 Morse sent the well-known biblical message: “What hath God wrought?”

Some years later, on March 7, 1876, the Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. Without the need for a code, the system also transmitted vocal sounds in real time, causing electric ripples similar to the vibrations of the air that accompanied the sound.

Two decades later, in 1896, the Italian Guglielmo Marconi went a step further and designed the radiotelegraph, the first wireless telegraph that managed to transmit signals over long distances. In 1901, he achieved the first communication using radio waves across the Atlantic Ocean (between England and Canada).

Beyond globality: what is to come

In the twentieth century, technical advances both on and surrounding Earth—electronics, computers and satellites—culminated in 1969 with the birth of the Internet, which brings together all the previous advances. Immediacy, globality, bidirectionality and multimedia capabilities, making it an unprecedented, ever-evolving communicative milestone. From the e-mail and web pages with which the Web took off, to social networks or instant messaging systems, the ease with which we emit and receive information today is changing us as a society and as individuals.

3D holograms will be common in a few years, experts say. Credit: Jill, jellidonut... whatever.

3D holograms will be common in a few years, experts say. Credit: Jill, jellidonut… whatever.

What does the future hold? Christian Herff, a researcher at the Cognitive Systems Laboratory at the University of Bremen (Germany), hopes that in 2050 we will continue to communicate face-to-face. To bridge distances, the scientist believes that we will talk to anyone as if standing next to us, without the need for screens.

This is an idea shared by Michael Liebhold. “We are going to see, speak and make gestures to high-resolution and distant digital representations through our thin and comfortable contact lenses that will show digital images superimposed on the real world in 3D,” Liebhold, a researcher at the Institute for the Future (USA) tells OpenMind.

As for mind-to-mind communication with brain waves, brain-machine devices will allow us to issue commands and texts to a computer, although this will take at least a decade to arrive, according to Herff. “Thechnology will be used first in patients who have no other way of communicating and then the general public will use it,” the researcher, who has already managed to turn brain waves into text, explains to OpenMind. In Liebhold’s opinion, mind-to-mind messages are still a long way off, given the complexity of human thought, which not only emits information but also sensations and emotions.

Laura Chaparro 
@laura_chaparro