“The Army’s Bold Plan to Turn Soldiers Into Telepaths”

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The Story

“The Army’s Bold Plan to Turn Soldiers into Telepaths”
by Adam Piore
Discover, April 2011

The Pitch

[Piore notes that because he had already written for these editors, he just went straight into the pitch.]

I’d like to propose a story about efforts to use brain imaging technologies to communicate without speaking, so-called “neural telepathy.”

The Pentagon is funding a project called “Silent Warrior.” The goal is to invent a machine that would allow two subjects to communicate telepathically, using brain scanners to “read” their thoughts, and computers to convert those thoughts into language, which could be transmitted into a partner’s earpiece.

Imagine Special Forces soldiers able to creep into the caves of Tora Bora and snatch Al Qaeda operatives, communicating and coordinating without hand signals or words – operating like a swarm of bees linked through one central brain.

The science involved is fascinating. Little is known about how language is encoded in the brain. But NYU neuroscientist David Poeppel, one of the world’s leading experts in language and the brain, is working to identify and map out the areas of the brain where language processing occurs. He’s teamed up with experts in spatial attention at UC Irvine, and engineers at Carnegie Mellon.

Fulfilling the Pentagon’s far vision will require Poeppel to push neuroscience to new
frontiers. How does signal processing work in the brain? Is it actually possible to watch a person thinking a specific word or sentence? Could you tell the difference between different words and sentences just by examining their neural signatures? How granular could you get? Do imagined sentences look the same as spoken sentences? Could you teach a person to communicate by thinking in Morse code?

I suggest we examine this project, and use it to explore language and the brain. Silent Warriors probably won’t be roaming the fields communicating telepathically for another 15 years. But there’s enough science here to make for a fascinating read.

At UC Irvine, Neuroscientist Mike D’Zmura’s team has already taught subjects to visualize different patterns of tapping, and can tell which pattern a subject is imagining by viewing brain scans. They have already begun recording imagined speech such as: “Blue Eagle go right.” They have yet to identify a unique signature for a specific word or phrases that is universal to all brains—that may be a century away. But you can tell a person to think a phrase, record their neural pattern and then recognize that neural pattern when it reappears.

Many other researchers are using similar techniques to accomplish less ambitious task – and we could touch on some of their advances in the article. Discover wrote about the 2003 study by Duke University’s Miguel Nocoleis, who demonstrated a monkey could direct a robotic arm to pick up a banana using just his thoughts. Toyota has built upon that technology and recently unveiled a thought controlled wheelchair.

South African researcher Tan Le, and her company Emotiv, will debut a low-cost headset this fall that can record brain signals, then translate them into actions on the computer, allowing a user to move a block forward and back just by thinking, turn on and off the lights, and open and close curtains.

We could also talk about the work of Gerwin Schalk, at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center. He has found a way to allow people with “locked in” syndrome to type with their thoughts.

Schalk scans for neural signals in the sections of the brain that normally control motor resources. Letters appear on a screen in front of the person, and they are able to send a unique signal when they see the letter they want. Basically, their neurons fire with enthusiasm if they like it and the scanner picks that up.

In Wisconsin, a graduate student using this technology posted to twitter last spring using only his thoughts.

Only problem is, it’s slow and arduous to type. But just this past December, Schalk unveiled a pioneering way to implant electrodes on the surface of a person’s brain, which increased typing speed to about 20 letters a minute, about double what was possible.

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