The Army Is Working on Brain Hacks to Help Soldiers Deal With Information Overload

The Army hopes that technology can solve the info-overload problem that technology has created, and free up people to do what people do best.

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May 3 2018, 1:30pm

Army researcher John Gerdes works closely with U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Sept. 27, 2017, to showcase 3-D printed drones. Image: U.S. Army photo by David McNally

With drones and tiny sensors spreading across the planet, the US Army is worried that there's simply too much information for soldiers to process.

So the ground-combat branch wants to hack troops' brains, and develop new technologies and methods for pairing human beings and artificial intelligence. The idea is for the AI—"intelligent agent" is the term the Army uses—to process raw information, leaving the human soldier to do what they're best at: make decisions, especially creative ones.

"In theory, intelligent agents will have parallel computational power that is much greater than that of humans," Dr. Jonathan Touryan, a neuroscientist at the Army's Human Research and Engineering Directorate in Maryland, said in an Army release. "In developing human-agent integration principles, we hope to accentuate the strengths of both while mitigating individual weaknesses."

For its main human-AI integration effort, the Army teamed up with private industry and universities in California, Texas, Florida, and New York. The resulting Cognition and Neuroergonomics Collaborative Technology Alliance began in 2010 and is scheduled to continue in its current form until at least 2020.

One recent experiment involved two people—a driver and passenger—traveling together along a busy highway. The passenger, acting as a sort of surrogate AI, talked to the driver in order to test how well a human being can remember and respond to new information while under stress.

"What we're interested in doing is understanding whether we can look at the synchrony between the physiologies—the brain response or the heart rate response—between the driver and passenger, and use that synchrony to predict whether the driver is going to remember the information the passenger is telling them after the drive is over," Dr. Jean Vettel, an Army neuroscientist, said in an official release.

The resulting data could help the Army determine when and how an AI should relay information to a soldier in combat. This man-machine division of labor could become even more important in coming years.

The Defense Advanced Research Project's Squad X initiative, which began in 2013, aims to “increase squad members’ real-time knowledge of their own and teammates’ locations … through collaboration with embedded unmanned air and ground systems." More drones and sensors means more information for troops to sort through during a firefight or some other life-or-death situation.

Separately from the Army's Cognition and Neuroergonomics Collaborative Technology Alliance and DARPA's Squad X, the military has been working on an “implantable neural interface” that could allow soldiers and AIs to directly communicate.

That's right, a brain modem, one that translates data into electronic impulses that are compatible with a human being's own thoughts. Inspired by the rapid advancements in cochlear implants and other medical implants, DARPA began work on the modem in 2016 as part of a four-year, $60-million program.

Experts say the brain modem might not work. “The big challenge is you’re talking about interfacing with the human brain—that’s not a trivial thing," Dr. Bradley Greger, a neuroscientist at Arizona State University, told me.

But for the Army, it could be worth taking a chance on this and similar technology. Drones and sensors are steadily getting better, smaller, cheaper and more numerous. There's more data by the day. "Humans simply cannot process the amount of information that is potentially available," Touryan said. "Yet, humans remain unmatched in their ability to adapt to complex and dynamic situations, such as a battlefield environment."

The Army hopes that technology can solve the info-overload problem that technology has created, and free up people to do what people do best: think creatively.