Telepathy has officially joined the ranks of invisibility and time travel as a much envied superpower that scientists claim is actually possible. The $6.3 million research project to make telepathy real is funded by the U.S. Army, which hopes to one day have “thought helmets” that soldiers can wear in the field to communicate without speaking or using hand signals.
Discover Magazine has the details:
“The helmet would function as a wearable interface between mind and machine. When activated, sensors inside would scan the thousands of brain waves oscillating in a soldier’s head; a microprocessor would apply pattern recognition software to decode those waves and translate them into specific sentences or words, and a radio would transmit the message. (Retired Army colonel and driving force behind the project Elmar) Schmeisser also proposed adding a second capability to the helmet to detect the direction in which a soldier was focusing his attention. The function could be used to steer thoughts to a specific comrade or squad, just by looking in their direction.”
Schmeisser got the idea of a thought helmet from reading Edward E. “Doc” Smith’s science fiction novel Skylark of Space as a kid, and it stuck with him ever since. Having received his Ph.D. in the physiology of vision, Schmeisser spent 30 years researching technologies like protective eyewear for soldiers exposed to lasers. Five years ago, he was at a conference on advanced prosthetics, when he met Gerwin Schalk and realized telepathy could be possible.
Schalk was a biomedical scientist studying how sensors could detect neural signals from the surface of the brain and use them to control electronic devices, like computers and prosthetic limbs. After hearing Schalk talk about his much-criticized research (many neuroscientists thought what Schalk was trying to do was only possible by putting sensors deep in the brain), Schmeisser sensed a great opportunity and proposed a collaboration.
Schalk and his neurosurgeon colleague Eric Leuthardt recruited 12 epilepsy patients undergoing electrocorticography (ECOG) — a procedure used to find the parts of their brains responsible for their seizures. The procedure requires the removal of the top part of the skull to make way for electrodes placed on the surface of the cortex.
Schalk and Leuthardt’s initial experiment went like this:
“The patients were presented with 36 words that had a relatively simple consonant-vowel-consonant structure, such as bet, bat, beat, and boot. They were asked to say the words out loud and then to simply imagine saying them. Those instructions were conveyed visually (written on a computer screen) with no audio, and again vocally with no video. The electrodes provided a precise map of the resulting neural activity.
Schalk was intrigued by the results. As one might expect, when the subjects vocalized a word, the data indicated activity in the areas of the motor cortex associated with the muscles that produce speech. The auditory cortex and an area in its vicinity long believed to be associated with speech, called Wernicke’s area, were also active.
When the subjects imagined words, the motor cortex went silent while the auditory cortex and Wernicke’s area remained active. Although it was unclear why those areas were active, what they were doing, and what it meant, the raw results were an important start. The next step was obvious: Reach inside the brain and try to pluck out enough data to determine, at least roughly, what the subjects were thinking.”
The results were enough to get serious attention from the Army, so Schmeisser started looking for more funding and more collaborators like Mike D’Zmura.
D’Zmura approached the project with a different technique called electroencephalography (EEG). EEG relies on electrodes placed outside the head and therefore requires no surgery. The downside is that the technique is much less precise than ECOG because the signal has to travel through cerebral fluid, the skull and the scalp, making it more difficult to pinpoint where it’s coming from.
A thought helmet is still far in our future, but the research shows promise. Schalk’s volunteers can move a black bar on a computer screen right or left if they merely think of the vowel sounds “aah” or “ooh,” respectively. According to Schalk, the computer is right almost 100 percent of the time.
Of course, we can’t discuss thought helmets without bringing up Big Brother. Nothing is more private than out thoughts, so the idea that we could one day be robbed of that privacy by misuse of this technology is terrifying and has attracted some negativity toward Schmeisser’s endeavor. In response, he’s said that the technology is simply too sensitive to be used in that way — helmets must be programmed to pick up certain sentences and must be tailored to a person’s accent and intonation. Schmeisser also noted that the stress someone would feel when they’re forced into that kind of situation would hinder computer performance (which makes me wonder how useful they will be on soldiers in combat).
As with all new technology, this is awesome but also dangerous. I guess we’ll just have to see what happens.
Photo: US-GOV-Military, Wikimedia, CC