29 April 2010

Cyborg Geniuses Behind Machines of War


The US military wants to boost the brainpower of soldiers as much as their physical strength, speed, and destructive power. At the same time, the DOD wants to develop better brain-machine interfaces for their super-bright soldiers.
Neuroscience is at the locus of the program, because before they can super-charge cognition, Pentagon scientists need to understand exactly how it works. So they’re launching “Neuromorphic Models of Human Social Cultural Behavior (HSCB),” in an effort to accurately model human cognition, including how we perceive, learn and retain information. HSCB models already exist, and are used by troops and decision-makers to predict the outcome of a choices during a mission. But the models “are only as good as the fidelity of the human behavior representations (HBR) that form them.” Right now, those representations are based entirely on empirical observation, which the military wants to swap out for a model that can tap into “the functions of the brain that give rise to actual human cognition.”

It’s not the first time the Pentagon’s tried to map the human mind. Last year, far-out research agency Darpa requested proposals for systems that would synchronize neural brain waves to optimize the mind’s storage capacity and memory recall. The agency’s also tried to create synthetic versions of living brains, complete with “neuroscience-inspired architecture.”

But no matter how cognitively capable troops become, they’ll still rely on computers to handle much of their workload. Humans, the solicitation notes, “are quick to arrive at initial decisions,” but computers can more quickly calculate pros and cons of different tactics. That’s why the military also wants neuroscience to “bridge the human-machine systems gap” and turn troops and computers into collaborative units. Their “Neuro-Cognitive Control of Human Machine Systems,” would tap into the neural signals that indicate desired actions, then transmit them to a computer to determine the optimal approach and carry it out.

And a training program that emphasizes brawny brains over bodies reflects a trend across Pentagon departments: Just last month, the Army announced a redesign of their physical fitness program, to accommodate troops spending more time behind computer screens than they do on their feet.
It rather sounds as if the US military wants to develop into a back office full of nerds controlling front line armies, navies, and air forces made up of semi-autonomous machines fully brain-linked to the back office nerds. All branches of the military currently control unmanned semi-autonomous vehicles -- on air, land, sea, and undersea.

This emphasis on putting only machines in harm's way is a tacit acknowledgement of the huge expense of training the modern soldier. It also points to an army of the future that no longer distinguishes between male and female in combat roles.

If such a US military does come about, it will mean a radical change from the modern day missions of peace-keeping and "winning hearts and minds", as has been attempted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tribal peoples will not likely give their hearts and minds to strange machines. Not even a little.

No, these cyborg armies, navies, and air forces are meant for rapid destruction of enemy forces, wherever they may be -- no doubt extending into near-Earth space. It is a logical extension of warfare, where the value of human life is considered most important. But the modern US military consists mainly of non-combat forces and non-combat roles. It remains to be seen whether the new psychology of warfare will extend into the Pentagon mentality as a whole.

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