Lee Jin-man/AP

Military Developing Thought-Based Communication

September 17, 2008 11:15 AM
by Josh Katz
The U.S. Army is investing in technology that could allow soldiers to communicate with each other simply through their thoughts.

Military Gets into Soldiers’ Heads

The Army awarded a five-year, $4 million contract last month to scientists from the University of California at Irvine, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland, to produce “thought helmets,” according to a recent Time magazine article.

If such technology is successful, it will allow troops to communicate using only information from their brain waves. The goal is that the project will “lead to direct mental control of military systems by thought alone,” the Army claims.

The idea of using thought for military purposes is nothing new, or at least in the world of Hollywood. In a 1982 film called “Firefox,” Clint Eastwood attempted to steal a Soviet fighter plane that possessed special powers: the pilot could manage its weapons with his mind.

But Dr. Elmar Schmeisser, an Army neuroscientist who manages the program, sees the potential for reality in the film: “You’ll press the button on your harness, you’ll think, then you’ll throw the button off,” the American Forces Press Service reported.

In tests, subjects will wear “special caps” that perform electroencephalography, or EEG readings of the brain. The scientists then face the monumental task of translating the resulting “squiggles on the computer screen” into “messages a computer can type out or speak.”

However, such technology could be decades away. Schmeisser says the difficulty lies in the fact that such an immense amount of brain activity occurs at once, and all people have unique EEG blueprints. The individuals who use the technology will also have to be “trained to think in a way the system will understand,” according to the American Forces Press service.

The military is not expected to be the sole beneficiary of such technology. Schmeisser noted that the research is meant to be a stepping-stone to other advances. For example, communication through thought could become useful for those with neurological problems like Lou Gehrig’s Disease. “So this program is not focused on creating inventions,” he said. “It is focused on creating the basic science foundation from which inventions flow.”

Questions have been raised over the possibility that the technology could be more intrusive than the users may desire. But Schmeisser said, “This is not about mind reading. It doesn’t even think about ‘mind’ at all.”

The hope is that the technology will progress so that those sending the message will think about what they desire and it will be transmitted to the receiver “rendered in the speaker’s voice and indicate the speaker’s distance and direction from the listener,” according to Time.

A San-Francisco-based company is actually producing a video game based on a similar premise. Emotiv Systems will release a $299 headset in the summer of 2009 that lets users control their video-game characters with their thoughts.

“Featuring 16 sensors that measure electrical impulses from the brain, the headset—which plugs into the PC’s USB port—will enable games to register facial expressions, emotions and even cognitive thoughts, allowing players to perform in-game actions just by visualising them,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported (the founders of Emotiv are Australian scientists). In addition, the company will add games so that if a player is feeling “angry, engaged, happy, stressed, etc.,” the game can “adjust difficulty levels, in-game music and the game environment accordingly.”

Related Topic: Robots in the army

The military is increasingly using robotic technology, as well. Washington University’s Doug Few and Bill Smart predict that robotic forces will make up 30 percent of the Army by around 2020.

Humans operate all robots used remotely by the Army. “While movies display robots as intelligent beings, Smart and Few are not necessarily looking for intelligent decision-making in their robots. Instead, they are working to develop an improved, ‘intelligent’ functioning of the robot,” Science Daily reported.

Reference: ‘Firefox’


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