A Pentagon Agency Is Looking at Brains--And Raising Eyebrows

A Pentagon Agency Is Looking at Brains--And Raising Eyebrows
December 15th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: A Pentagon Agency Is Looking at Brains--And Raising Eyebrows

A Pentagon Agency Is Looking at Brains--And Raising Eyebrows
Wall Street Journal
December 15, 2006
Pg. B1
Science Journal

By Sharon Begley
In a request issued in October, a government agency asked researchers for "innovative" ways to monitor the brain as it learns and acquires skills, such as by tracking when brain waves flip from those characteristic of novices to those of experts, and noninvasive ways to speed up the process.
In February, the agency said it was interested in ways to use EEGs to detect when a brain had found what it was looking for in a photograph, such as a familiar face in a crowd.
As part of the same program, the agency awarded Lockheed Martin $650,000 in August to develop technology to monitor a brain's cognitive activity in real time and, if the device senses overload, make changes such as slowing the flow of data the brain is receiving.
In a progress report to the agency's "Augmented Cognition" program, a company said in September that it had completed development of a portable, wearable system of sensors that assess cognitive function, producing a readout showing how a brain's pattern of thought-related activity deviates "from that of the normal population."
The requests came from, and the report went to, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Established in 1958, Darpa is best known for inventing the forerunner of the Internet. For decades it lavished most of its support on physics. But lately, as part of its mission to maintain U.S. military superiority "by sponsoring revolutionary, high-payoff research," the agency has expanded into neuroscience.
Can the folks who brought you the Internet also bring you ways to look into brains -- and do you want them to?
Darpa has good reason to fund neuroscience. Discoveries and new technologies such as noninvasive imaging to detect what the mind is doing might help analysts, pilots and grunts process and react better to barrages of data, and allow real-time assessment of head injuries on the battlefield. Brain-computer interfaces in which thoughts are electronically translated into signals that operate a computer or prosthetic limb might improve rehab for soldiers suffering grievous injuries.
As with other "dual use" technologies, however, the findings and gizmos born of Darpa's brain research may well find their way into civilian life, and in ways that trouble some ethicists. Darpa's interest in neuroscience is "extensive and growing," says Jonathan Moreno of the University of Virginia, a former adviser on biodefense to the Department of Homeland Security. "There are reasons to be concerned about what uses these discoveries might be put to."
The Augmented Cognition program, for instance, seeks technologies that will "measure and track a subject's cognitive state in real time." The agency is partway there. One prototype helmet monitors brain states, which may include those associated with anger, aggression, anxiety, fatigue, deception -- in principle, any mental state -- and transmit the data wirelessly to a command center.
In battle, that would let commanders redeploy soldiers who are in no state to fight or carry out certain missions; you might not want a soldier who is boiling over with rage to search civilians. How an office supervisor, airport screener or job interviewer might make use of the technology is left to the reader's imagination.
A Darpa project using fMRI imaging of brain activity applies the discovery that recognizing a face or place you've seen before triggers a characteristic pattern of cortical activity. Do you recognize this terrorist training camp? This terrorist? The benefits could be huge. As with polygraphs and fingerprint analysis, however, technologies can be widely deployed without a solid scientific foundation about their rate of false positives, with the result that they send the innocent to prison.
In a new book, "Mind Wars," Prof. Moreno describes a Darpa project on a drug called CX717, which enables sleep-deprived people to maintain memory and cognitive function. In a world where students take Ritalin to give them a boost on the SAT and Provigil to pull all-nighters, there is no reason to think CX717, if it passes more tests, will be confined to military pilots on long-haul flights. If the drug doesn't succeed in keeping a sleep-deprived brain sharp, maybe Darpa-funded research on neurostimulation -- little zaps of electricity to improve cognitive performance -- will.
Presumably, workers and students will have the legal right to reject such "enhancements," Prof. Moreno says. Soldiers might not. Should they? Will employers or others pressure people to accept better thinking through technology? Will the use of such "augmented cognition" by business competitors have the same effect as steroids in baseball, where the perception that everyone is using them exerts pressure to do the same, to keep the playing field level? There has been virtually no debate on the ethical questions raised by the brave new brain technologies.
Ever since the atomic bomb, physicists have known that their work has potential military uses, and have spoken up about it. But on the morality of sending orders directly to the brain (of a soldier, em
December 15th, 2006  
Jacobs Ladder anyone??