Interesting post in today’s Guardian about how some of the world’s militaries are co-opting neuroscience research to enhance their soldiers’ capabilities.
Among the technologies being tested are brain-weapon links that could allow soliders to remotely control weapon systems directly, neural stimulation in order to raise a solider’s performance in specific tasks, and brain scanning technologies that would aid selection procedures.
How would such technologies work?
Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is the passing of a weak electrical current through the skull via a pair of electrodes. Sounds a bit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, huh? Well, apparently it’s been proved completely safe–at least in the short term. The idea is that the current stimulates specific regions of the brain through changes in neuronal exciteability levels, which in turn leads to alteration of brain function. One study by a team at the University of New Mexico claimed that tDCS helped US troops bound for the Middle East spot roadside bombs, sniper threats, and other dangers in a virtual reality training program.
How do they know where to place the electrodes, though? Good question. To do that they rely on a item of neuroimaging technology called a fMRI. By using the fMRI to record which brain pathways are being used when troops are learning a particular skill, researchers can identify which areas of the brain should be stimulated. All in all, the method is quite clunky IMHO, but it appears to work. Determining the side effects will take painstaking research, however (I don’t know how carefully focused the stimulation is, but it strikes me that it could interfere with pathways involved in other tasks).
Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) connect brains directly to external devices, and have been floated as perfect candidates for the improved performance of drones and other weapon systems that can be inefficient due to human-controller consciousness bottlenecks. The idea here is that the subconscious mind is much faster at parsing visual information that the conscious one, so that if the latter can be taken out of the decision loop, weapon systems can be made more efficient. Famously BMIs have been used to enable people to control cursors through readings of their brain signals, and already commercial applications, including a Second Life control facility for the disabled, are close to market. Like the tCDS technology, the scanning ability of BMIs are rather crude, relying in gross electrical features rather than any true “mind-reading” ability.
A third method involves using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to help identify patterns that the conscious-mind might have missed, but the subconscious mind has picked up. Patterns such as potential target locations in satellite imagery, for example. EEGs measure large scale electrical activity across the scalp known as “brainwaves” by attaching a recording net over the patient’s head. The synchronous firing of thousands or millions of neurons with similar spatial alignment leads to a signal being detected. Correlation of these brainwaves with the materials being observed by a subject can help identify which images should be given closer inspection.
I’m still waiting for the day a brain-scanner can read my mind and produce an essay like this with a click of the fingers!