Saturday, March 24, 2007

I'm Actually Qualified To Comment On This One

Mention "computer" and "scan" and "brain" in the same sentence and people tend to get a little nervous. I suppose that they're worried about some sort of Orwellian scenario where the government will start stealing their thoughts. How else to explain this recent post by Roxanne at Pandagon?

This is legitimate research, and its pretty cool research at that. The brain doesn't have a global pool of computational power. Rather, it has a bunch of areas that are (to a first approximation) specialized for different tasks. You can only see so much, hear so much, feel so much, etc. at any given time, even if other areas of your brain are sitting around doing nothing. So trying to even out the workload by changing the format of the data (text to picture or text to sound, for instance) can realistically be expected to improve performance.

What Roxanne fails to grasp is that they're not "reading your thoughts" or anything close to that. From the article:

Boeing's prototype controller uses an fMRI to check just how overloaded a pilot's visual and verbal memories are. Then the system adjusts its interface -- popping the most important radar images up on the middle of the screen, suggesting what targets should be hit next and, eventually, taking over for the human entirely, once his brain becomes completely overwhelmed.
The brain's visual memory centers fire about 250 to 400 milliseconds after someone spots a target -- even if he doesn't realize what he's seen. Using infrared, magnetic and electrical sensors, researchers at Honeywell and the Oregon Health and Science University were able to use those unwitting neural spikes to pick likely "hot spots" in a satellite picture, where targets might be.
In the first case it looks like they're using fMRI to measure increased blood flow (corresponding to increased activity). In the second case they're looking for a specific firing pattern that correlates with a particular cognitive event. Nothing sinister going on here.

So why "mind-fuck"? Why "ostensibly"? Does Roxanne think that this is some secret project designed to allow the government to pick our brains? That's science fiction; there isn't one iota of evidence to support that contention.

As far as commercial applications go, this approach would be valid in any environment where the user needs to process large amounts of data quickly. Civilian pilots could certainly benefit from this, and probably civilian drivers as well. IT operations, where you have to keep an eye on a lot of things simultaneously, might also benefit. And I can see this being applied, somewhere far down the road, to immersive video game technology. Those are just the applications I've been able to think of off the top of my head; there's probably a slew of others with which I'm not familiar.


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