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DARPA funding computer-mediated telepathy

May 15, 2009 _ 12:20 / Digital Nation Team / comments (0)

Yesterday we wrote in reference to the military's drones that "the stuff of sci-fi has arrived." Our story today is even more the "stuff of sci-fi," and while it may not have arrived yet, one has to wonder if it's coming soon. Wired's Danger Room reports that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which pioneered the Internet back in the 1960s, has budgeted $4 million to launch a program called Silent Talk. The project aims to "allow user-to-user communication on the battlefield without the use of vocalized speech through analysis of neural signals":

Before being vocalized, speech exists as word-specific neural signals in the mind. Darpa wants to develop technology that would detect these signals of "pre-speech," analyze them, and then transmit the statement to an intended interlocutor. Darpa plans to use EEG to read the brain waves. It's a technique they're also testing in a project to devise mind-reading binoculars that alert soldiers to threats faster the conscious mind can process them.
The project has three major goals, according to Darpa. First, try to map a person's EEG patterns to his or her individual words. Then, see if those patterns are generalizable -- if everyone has similar patterns. Last, "construct a fieldable pre-prototype that would decode the signal and transmit over a limited range."

This program comes on the heels of the Army granting a team of University of California $4 million to explore "synthetic telepathy."

Vaughan, from the Mind Hacks blog, is skeptical:

I get the feeling that DARPA, the American military research agency, only ever select their research projects from sci-fi comics. ... It's all getting a bit Rogue Trooper isn't it?

But, as ReadWriteWeb reports, Twitter may have already beaten the military to the punch:

University of Wisconsin-Madison biomedical engineering doctoral student Adam Wilson has successfully tested a "brain wave monitor" to Twitter publishing interface, allowing him to compose a message merely by thinking and publish it to the arguably too-popular microblogging service.
Either the gates of Hell have begun to open or this is a grad student who really knows how to publicize his work by riding the bandwagon of popular culture. Both are probably true.

The idea of brain implants and converting brain waves into readable computer data raises some interesting ethical questions. If you're interested in these issues, ReadWriteWeb put together a nice critique of the brain implant idea back in 2007. Two key points:

We don't even have control over our own data online yet
People complain about information overload already

For my part, I can't imagine when the American public will have the time to even consider these issues with all the other moral/social/ethical questions on its plate already.

-Jeff

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posted February 2, 2010

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