Monday, September 15, 2008

U.S. Army to make "mind reading" helmets

Army scientists have scored a $4 million government grant to develop a helmet that will allow soldiers to telepathically communicate with each other. The ambitious project aims to allow "direct mental control of military systems by thought alone."

Sound too sci-fi to be true?

"Because soldiers are already trained to talk in clean, clear and formulaic ways, it would be a very small step to have them think that way," says Dr. Elmar Schmeisser, the Army neuroscientist overseeing the program.

A very small step? I don't think so, not for $4 million dollars. In neuroscience research, that kind of money doesn't go very far, certainly not far enough to carry them through the 15-20 years they think is needed before the program is operational.

Setting aside the inadequate funding for such a monumental project - as groundbreaking as landing a person on the moon - their goal is not completely impossible.

For example, U.S. military scientists have already developed an array of electrodes that can be attached to your scalp and face that allow commands to sometimes be relayed to make simple maneuvers in a video game. After a baseline of brain and muscle activity is measured in response to thinking about specific actions, such as lifting or pulling, the person thinks about doing a specific action in the video game and voilá - it happens.

Getting from there to a system that is practical and useful on a battlefield is a totally different matter. For it to work according to the military's plan, the brain waves measured by electrodes in one helmet would have to be translated into a voice coming out of a helmet microphone on the other end.

A few significant problems have to be solved, among them:

a) translating electrical activity in the form of brainwaves to a voice in a helmet microphone

.... If certain specific brainwaves have already been somewhat successfully relayed to a computer system, as seen with the video game, it's not a terrific leap to get from there to voice software. Both already more or less exist.

b) figuring out which commands have a distinct brain wave signature that occurs the same way every time they're delivered

.... Military scientists involved with the project already acknowledge that each person has a unique pattern of brainwaves that must be individually calibrated. That just makes it more expensive, not impossible. A bigger problem is differentiating the huge amount of irrelevant brain activity that takes place from the single relevant piece. Every image that lands on the retina, sound that comes in through the ears, scent through the noise — they all generate electrical activity in the brain and they come in at a rate that is mindboggling when you think about it. Throw in a highly stressful battlefield situation and I doubt you'll find someone who can meditate that well.

The advantage - a system that can't be hacked into or eavesdropped on - needs no explanation.

Let's say this monumental challenge can be overcome. Why chase after something that requires way more than $4 million to develop when texting orders translated into a microphone would be far easier? Both require satellite communication. What's the advantage over texting? Sure, texting requires attention to be paid to the type pad, but a telepathic system would require perhaps even more attention, and, how would the telepathic sender know the right message was even sent?

Mind control research:

Mind-controlled video games:

My favorite piece from the research announcement is the following, of course:
"The spinout for military technology has been here since the Bronze Age," said Elmar Schmeisser, Army Research Office program manager, pointing to how early man first developed weapons, then turned them into tools. "Fighting and the development of military technology is something humans have been doing as far back as we can record," he said.

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