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SCI-FI COMES TRUE

Mind-Reading Machine Tells Secrets of the Brain


By Norman Kempster
Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1976

WashingtonIn a program out of science fiction, the government is developing mind-reading machines that can show, among other things, whether a person is fatigued, puzzled or daydreaming. If the project lives up to is promise, the machines could be in use in airplane cockpits before the end of this decade to warn a pilot that his mind is wandering and he is failing to perform essential duties. Since 1973, a little-known Pentagon agency has been studying ways to plug a computer into an individuals brain waves, or electroencephalograph (EEG) signals in the scientists lexicon. The Advanced Research Projects Agency says the $1 million-a-year program has passed its initial laboratory tests and is ready for determination of its military uses. Scientist working under agency contracts at the University of Illinois, UCLA, Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester and in laboratories at other facilities have been able to determine an individuals alertness from his brain waves. They can tell also how he perceives colors and shapes. But there may come a day when the EEG will be used to perform more bizarre tasks. At UCLA, scientists are working on the use of the EEG to control machines. To give it a trivial application, a spiritualist could use the waves to make a table levitate and to give it the serious application envisioned by the Pentagon, a gun could fire by pure cerebral reflex, bypassing the bodys motor system. So far, this work has been conducted solely in the laboratory, with a subject who has electrodes attached to his scalp thinking an object through a maze. Scientists say the maze experiment works, heightening hopes for the project. Other applications of the EEG may come much sooner. It may be only a matter of time before the machines will be able to read a persons brain waves to determine just what he is thinking. Within two to five years, the Advanced Research Projects Agency hopes to test the EEG-computer hookups in a wide range of military uses ranging from pilot training to interpretation of satellite photos of earth. In the airplane cockpit it could work like this: The pilots brain waves are read by electrodes placed in his radio earphones. A small special-purpose computer scans the peaks and valleys of the EEG to determine what the pilot is concentrating on and what he is ignoring.

If the pilot should intentionally put his plane into a dive, the computer would let it pass. But if he took a potentially hazardous action through inattention, the computer would alert him. Scientists at the University of Illinoisthe lead institution on the project expect to test the system in Link Trainers within two years and in airplanes within five years. It then might take several years more before the system could be produced in quantity. George H. Heilmeier, director of the research agency, dropped tantalizing hints about the EEG program in his annual report to Congress. Although he has provided few details, enough has been said about the program to raise some questions. For example, could these systems be used to read the minds of prisoners of war or to pick the brains of unsuspecting American citizens? Highly unlikely, agency scientists say. For one thing, the EEG must be individually calibrated. Brain-wave graphs mean different things for different persons. So it is necessary to obtain a baseline graph by having each individual think a specific series of thoughts. It is quick and easy to make the calibration but it must be done for each individual, one scientist explained. Besides, under present programs, it is necessary to place electrodes on the individuals head. It does not hurt but it could scarcely be done secretly. At MIT, however, scientists are studying magnetic brain waves that can produce graphs much like the electrical brain waves now being measured. Scientists for the research agency say it may be possible to pick up magnetic waves a foot or two from the subjects head, perhaps by placing a receiver in the back of a chair. Could these waves be projected over distances greater than a few feet? We are now talking about a foot or several feet, one scientist said. But the research agency has a pretty good idea of what it could be doing in the 1980s. At the University of Illinois, the research is concentrating on two possible applicationsas an aid to pilots and as help for teachers. The scientists assume that the aircraft of tomorrow will be even more automated than those of today. This means the pilot will have to make numerous decisions about the use of equipment under his command. The research agency said the objective of the brain-wave research was to provide a system to help the pilot when he needed it and leave him alone when he did not. Another possible application of the new technology is to give a pilot a preflight checkout. The researchers think that relatively soon they will be able to determine if anxiety or fatigue is likely to impair a flyers effectiveness. In the classroom, the EEG can discover how a student learns and when he is most likely to learn. It can also advise teachers about the best way to teach more to the student. For instance, a student taking a multiple-choice test now can be graded only right or wrong. If he misses a question, the teacher can increase the emphasis on the subject so he will get it right the next time.

But scientists for the research agency believe that within two years or so a student can be given a multiple-choice test while hooked into an EEG machine. The machine can tell the difference between a right answer based on knowledge and one that was merely a lucky guess. It can tell also if a student was dead certain about an answer that proved to be wronga result that calls for the greatest attention from the teacher to end the misunderstanding. The research agency is interested in the way the EEG can be used to improve computer-based teaching programs. At present, the agencys researchers say, computer lesson plans can be set up only on a trial and error basis. The agency expects an EEG hookup to show which lessons are effective and which are not. At Stanford, scientists are studying EEG charts to determine the part of the brain that is in use when persons are most successful in remembering pictures or graphs. In theory, everyone has photographic memory some of the time. If it can be determined when a person is most likely to remember the details of a picture, it should help in interpretation of photo reconnaissance. Interpretation of satellite photos involves the quick recognition of changes in a pattern from one day to the next. Scientists for the research agency say that, if the Stanford project is successful, technicians can be shown the photos only when their brains are most receptive. At the nearby Stanford Research Institute, a private firm previously associated with the university, scientists are testing a theory that the brains two hemispheres perform separate functions The work of an air traffic controller, for instance, may be governed entirely by one of the brains hemispheres. By attaching several controllers to EEG machines, it is possible to direct the work to the controller whose brain is most ready to handle it at any particular time.