Saturday, May 5, 2007


You may have seen this already. It's been out for a few days now. And at first glance it's nothing special: technology controlled by brainwaves through an ECG electrode interface, which is so far behind the cutting edge that you'll be finding it in games before the end of the year. But check out this quote as to why, exactly, the military would even want to develop brain-activated binoculars:

The idea is that EEG can spot "neural signatures" for target detection before the conscious mind becomes aware of a potential threat or target ... In other words, like Spiderman's "spider sense," a soldier could be alerted to danger that his or her brain had sensed, but not yet had time to process.

So. Another end run around the prefrontal cortex in the name of speed and efficiency. I'm telling you, nobody likes the pointy-haired boss these days...

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Blogger Steve S. said...

I thought of you (or your writings, rather) when I read that too. Is it just me, or is there a kind of... similarity... to pop-culture Buddhism in the implications of this research? Going for "no-mind" and all that?

May 5, 2007 at 7:28 PM  
Anonymous kevin said...

"The idea is that EEG can spot "neural signatures" for target detection before the conscious mind becomes aware of a potential threat or target."

"That prefrontal cortex, he explains, allows the brain to pick up patterns quickly, but it also exercises a powerful impulse control, inhibiting false alarms. EEG would essentially allow the binoculars to bypass this inhibitory reaction and signal the wearer to a potential threat."

those statements don't jive, IME. is it that the a threatening EEG can be identified by a computer faster than by our prefontal cortex or that our prefontal cortex is taxing our threat recognition abilities with its superfluous functions? if the former, then wow, go science; if it's the latter, aren't there drugs that selectively inhibit the non-essential prefrontal activities that give threats (more base, non-social, functions) higher privilege?

either way, i think these soldiers are gonna be stress-balls with this unchecked "talk". i would think there comes a point that a human mind can no longer function ideally in such a specific state of heightened awareness, then other drugs would inevitably be needed to "come down", then other drugs needed to bring them base to baseline, and on and on. think Fat Elvis meets the Terminator.

May 6, 2007 at 6:54 PM  
Blogger AR said...

This strikes me as something of a bad idea. Even if it lets soldiers spot a sharpshooter they would otherwise have missed every once and again, would there really be a net combat effectiveness gain if there's a false alarm every 5 min?

I'd imagine that for every correct, useful identification, there are dozens of activations of the brains hair-trigger pattern recognizers that get filtered out by more reasonable, experienced parts.

This reminds me of the psychology of chess. At all levels above beginner, players all consider about the same number of moves for each turn; better plays simply consider better ones. Instead of bypassing long-established filters, surely it would be better for soldiers to simply develop better filters. How "simple" this actually is I do not know, but training is getting better and better.

I do wonder, though, whether a soldier who used these extensively might just end up training their brain to recognize the signal given by the device as a signal from the triggering area itself, albeit a very round-about one that passes through the visual cortex. Then you could have a soldier being unable to see some of the warnings, because the brain sees the image of the colored dot or whatever that means, "There is a threat!" says, "No, there isn't," and stops that bit of visual data before the soldier's higher functions even get to see it.

May 7, 2007 at 1:29 AM  
Blogger Fraxas said...

So what if the soldiers are all jumpy stressballs with 10-year life expectancies from the associated hypertension?

Just grow'em in vats and revoke (don't grant?) their citizenship. They're soldiers, not people...

May 7, 2007 at 11:44 AM  
Blogger Brett D said...

Random brainfart: maybe this is purpose or one of the purposes of the pointy-haired boss - to inhibit rather than react. The harder he works, the less work gets done - and it's a good thing.

What I mean is, as the the sensory organs become ever more sophisticated and the neural hardware generates more and more reflexes to respond to them, consciousness is, or is affected or produced by a damping/filtering process.

Think of the "fight or flight" reflex. One cannot do both and often the choice between them is unconscious, but consciousness may be useful in double-checking the circumstances of the choice and determining the better of the two in reference to memories, expectations, Theory of Mind, what have you.

In the case of a soldier (or Dick Cheney), a turn-and-shoot reflex should be countered by a no-wait-and-see that necessarily relies on far more than immediate stimuli.

May 7, 2007 at 7:54 PM  
Blogger Brett D said...

Come to think of it, I'm reminded a bit of an incident in Man Plus (Frederick Pohl). A cyborg is given marvellously expanded senses and quickly keels over with a fatal stroke. Pohl was only exaggerating what he'd read about people who'd suffered correctable blindness at a very young age and had their sight restored by surgery after adolescence, when their brains were less flexible. Very often they'd suffered as a result, being less able to deal with the incoming flood of sensation.

The protagonist, Cyborg Mark II then had to be outfitted with a backpack computer that functioned as a second visual cortext, mediating the sensory data for him.

I'm not sure how accurately I recall the novel or how much Pohl based that detail on fact, but he was at his peak as a hard-sf writer then...

Another dim and dusty reference dredged from the Devonian strata of my memory is an interview with a Vietnam fighter pilot who said that he turned off all the warning bells and whistles in his plane because they were simply distracting and as a net result reduced his suvivability. The design philosophy for fighter cockpits today (F-22, F-35 more so) is to simply and combine as much as possible into "intuitive" displays.

Based on that, I don't think that the binoculars would be that good an idea unless a lot of thought went into their ergonomics.

Finally, to get away from Dilbert for a little while... think of Amanda Bates and her robot army. She has to be there for a while and she serves the purpose of holding the robots back, until they're really needed.

You know, as a sort of elaborate Chinese Room, the Theseus itself is a sort of model for the mind perhaps.

May 8, 2007 at 4:34 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Random brainfart: maybe this is purpose or one of the purposes of the pointy-haired boss - to inhibit rather than react. The harder he works, the less work gets done - and it's a good thing.

Not so random. I'm fond of refering to that module in the ACG as a gatekeeper that keeps the pointy-haired boss from getting in and messing everything up, but that's just spinning things in service of my own agenda. It's more charitably described as a gatekeeper that works the other way: passes judgement on nonconscious processes all jostling for attention, deciding which ones are important enough to pass on up to the conscious mind.

I find that a plausible role, kind of the brain's supreme court of appeals. But when I try and figure out why it should necessarily have to be a self-aware court, I come up blank.

May 8, 2007 at 1:08 PM  

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