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Helmet mind-probe madness at DARPA

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Those wacky boffins at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have outdone themselves. The US military researchers are engaged in an effort to produce "soldier portable" digital imaging systems which can pick out "vehicle and dismount" threats 1-10 km away over a 120-degree or greater field of view, by scanning the user's brain.

Yes, that's right. The idea is that the gizmo will pick out threats which the soldier has subconsciously spotted, but which his conscious mind remains unaware of. Then the gadget will do what the user's brain ought to have done for itself, cueing up the threat - a man with a gun, an approaching enemy car-bomber, whatever - and action can be taken.

The programme is called Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System (CT2WS), and it's expected to come up with prototypes fast, by 2011 according to DARPA. At least for this project, the eccentric government boffins* are not interested in any solution which doesn't scan the user's brain. The FAQ for interested partcipants, available here (pdf), says "human brain activity must be an integral part of the target detection accomplished by the device". No cheating, either:

Q: Does eye or pupil-tracking alone fulfill the brain interface requirement?

A: No. However, these methods could be used as part of the CT2WS system.

The brain monitoring, however, has to be "non-invasive", which will no doubt be a relief to prospective users. The likeliest solution would involve electroenchephalogram (EEG) skull electrodes worn under combat helmets, or perhaps integrated into them (The almost-bald "high and tight" haircuts popular in many branches of the US military could make this relatively practical - though the traditionally more hirsute special forces may struggle).

It's possible to speculate that there would also be pupil-tracking. Thus, when the EEG hat saw subconscious activity indicating a threat, it would know just where the user was looking and could flash up a caret on the visor or device screen.

It has to be said, getting this down to a level where it's "soldier portable" really isn't going to be easy. There is already a lot of gear attached to modern troops' helmets, and it could be that they won't fancy swapping their proven night-vision optics and comms for EEG electrode headsets and eyeball-trackers.

There is also reason to speculate that even if the human subconscious really does measurably pick out threats which we normally ignore, it might struggle to do so using a compressed field of view and magnification. Not to mention the fact that the brain-binoculars won't be much use unless they can be integrated with existing optics tech such as image intensifiers and thermal vision, which could confuse our primitive monkey-brain subconscious even further.

It could be that there are simpler ways to unlock the potential of the human brain for identifying threats. Training, for example. It has long been routine for troops and police to practice close-quarter fighting on ranges where threats appear, must be identified fast, and correct decisions made. It's already proven that training like this can bring out at least some of the brain's latent ability, and one doesn't need to strap an EEG and eyeball scanners to one's bonce to do it, either. Yet ordinary soldiers - as opposed to SWAT cops and special-forces operators - don't do a lot of this.

The Pentagon might give some thought to investing in people rather than kit on this one. And let's all hope that nobody's thinking of resurrecting the now-defunct Land Warrior wearable-Wi-Fi gear and hooking CT2WS up to it, so that commanders (and enemy hackers, no doubt) would literally be able to read American troops' minds. There are sinister, Kafka-esque references to "brain recording" and "brain interface activated on an as-needed basis" in the DARPA FAQ.®

*Seems fair to say we're fast approaching the day when the phrase "mad scientist" may become appropriate.

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