The 1982 Clint Eastwood thriller “Firefox” seemed like the ultimate military science fiction story: A former Vietnam War pilot steals a state-of-the-art Soviet fighter plane armed with weapons controlled solely by thought.
More than 25 years later, the Army is funding research to explore the futuristic concept of using brain waves to communicate.
The Army Research Office awarded a $4 million grant in mid-August to lay the scientific foundation it hopes will someday enable soldiers in the field to communicate through a deliberate thought process.
Elmar Schmeisser, ARO program manager, described the revolutionary concept in terms of the way today’s field soldiers communicate with radios. “You’ll press the button on your harness, you’ll think, then you’ll throw the button off,” he said.
Gone will be the microphone. Gone will be the receiver. The message will go directly from the soldier’s head into a computer programmed to decipher his brain waves, Schmeisser explained.
The result will be communication that’s silent, secure and free of background noise.
“If I record what you are saying from your brain wave, it is automatically noise-free, clear and secure,” he said. “No one can overhear you, because you are not saying anything out loud, so it is an absolutely secure system.”
But getting to that point will require a monumental scientific breakthrough – something researchers at the University of California, Irvine, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland hope to work toward with the ARO grant.
It could take 15 or 20 years before technology gets to the point to support the system. “The mathematics behind this is fierce. It is really difficult,” Schmeisser said.
But if scientists are successful, they could bring tremendous capability to future soldiers, he said, while providing a huge side benefit as well. The technology could provide a way for soldiers with brain injuries – as well as civilians with neurological problems such as Lou Gehrig’s Disease – to communicate without speaking or writing, he said.
Test subjects for the project will don special caps that take electroencephalography, or EEG, signals sent out by their brains. The readings register as squiggles on a computer screen. The challenge for scientists is to figure out how to translate the squiggles into messages a computer can type out or speak.
The decoded thoughts – translated brain waves – would be transmitted using a system that points to the person intended to receive the message.
But getting to that point could take decades, Schmeisser said, because of the huge amount of brain activity that takes place at the same time, and the fact that no two people have the same EEG blueprint.
“What makes this difficult is that everyone’s brain is unique and everyone’s EEG is unique, just like everyone’s speech is unique,” he said. “So it has to be individualized for every person.”
But users also need to be trained to think in a way the system will understand, he said. “For this thing to have any chance of working at all, the individual has to learn to think clearly and loudly,” he said.
Schmeisser compared the system to a computer-based voice-recognition program that translates speech into text. “You have to speak slowly and clearly, and at the end you have a certain amount of accuracy,” he said. He noted a variety of factors that can interfere: nasal congestion, an unfamiliar accent or background noise.
“So you will have to think the same way and train the machine so it understands your particular pattern,” he said.
Schmeisser dismissed claims that the technology could be used to read people’s minds without their knowledge or consent. “This is not about mind reading. It doesn’t even think about ‘mind’ at all,” he said. “For this to work, you are going to have to be fully involved, and that is going to take time.”
The program is among the Army’s research projects intended to build the scientific foundation for future breakthroughs. “We’re looking at long-term goals,” Schmeisser said. “By putting research like this in place now, in 15 years you may be able to harvest that. This is not going to be operational in any real military sense for quite awhile.”
The grant for the program comes from the Defense Department’s Multidiscipli-nary University Research Initiative Program, which supports research involving more than one science and engineering discipline.
“In that synergy, you might be able to generate a breakthrough and research that will allow invention,” Schmeisser said. “So this program is not focused on creating inventions. It is focused on creating the basic science foundation from which inventions flow.”
Few other organizations are able invest in such high-risk ventures, despite the high payoff they could provide. “The Army is interested in these breakthrough technologies,” he said. “They are high-risk, and they may not pay off, but when they do, they pay off big.”
And in many cases, the payoffs not only benefit the military, but also have civilian applications. Schmeisser pointed to just a few technologies that started as Army research programs, lasers and radar among them.
“The spinout for military technology has been here since the Bronze Age, he said, pointing to how early man first developed weapons, then turned them into tools. “Fighting and the development of military technology is something humans have been doing as far back as we can record,” he said. “But the peacetime dividend of military development has been huge.”
Another long-term Army-funded program, still in its infancy, is exploring how to use genetically modified viruses to produce nanocircuitry. Angela Belcher, the chief scientist behind that effort, won the 2004 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award for her efforts.
In addition to paving the way to low-cost production of nanoscale integrated circuits and other electronic components, Belcher’s program could also lead to a broad range of next-generation applications: medical implants and tissue growth, energy-efficient batteries and lighting, faster and smaller computers, detectors for hazardous agents and stronger armor for military craft, among them.