|August 25, 2013
When DARPA issues a solicitation, they are looking for researchers who can develop the particular ability the solicitation calls for. Researchers respond with their ideas, and DARPA awards funding to the most promising proposals. A very creepy solicitation (SB131-002) has now been released, which calls for a “Portable Brain Recording Device & App”. The thing is, this technology is already affordable, if you like that kind of thing, but DARPA wants it to be real easy to get, so it’s gotta be around $30. They need someone who can make it smaller and cheaper, because, according to the solicitation, they want “to promote use by a wide audience”, including children.
“Having EEGs in every classroom in America”, say DARPA, would allow teachers to devise lesson plans using the devices to help children learn about the biology of “the brain and sensory systems”, by using these brain-to-computer interfaces (BCIs):
“Students could record their own brain activity and download the data to their iPad.”
The Agency also claims the devices could be worn by “average citizens”, which would crowd-source huge amounts of EEG data that could be analysed to advance the understanding of neuroscience.
Apart from a multitude of military and medical applications, say DARPA, “Many commercial entities would have interest in a low-cost, portable, and easy-to-use EEG. Potential marketplace applications exist in neuro-marketing, gaming, politics, and many other fields.”
It also seems DARPA want students to use the EEG devices for more than just biology lessons, as the solicitation mentions the devices could be used to, “modulate student feedback based on brain state”, which would mean students being kitted out with these devices much or all of the time, as education morphs into isolated interactions with “digital tutor or electronic learning systems”.
Students in the future are expected to have their own personal learning experiences, with avatar tutors, interactive games, and tailored courses. Computer analysis of individual student achievement is said to improve the learning process; such as in Arizona, where students were continually monitored in their learning, then their personal data, including Facebook activity, was tracked and analysed, and a computer algorithm decided which courses they should take, and how their learning should be structured. EEG data could be added to this profile to allow the computer to ‘understand’ the student a whole lot better.
A ‘portable brain recording device’ can already be bought by Joe Public, for about $100 to $400 a piece. It is a BCI, consisting of a wireless headset which sends EEG data to a smartphone or computer, which is then analysed using an app. The companies currently marketing these devices include Neurosky, Myndplay, and Emotiv.
The devices can read, learn, and understand the neural patterns of the user, allowing them to control things on a computer, such as games, and even movies, by the power of their thought alone. The devices are also being used by people who are into the ‘quantified self’ movement, because they can detect emotional and mental states, decision-making processes, intention, and some physical movements, such as blinking, and the data recorded by the device can be combined with data from other body sensors, so they can understand themselves better, and improve their health.
The Neurosky device is being marketed as a way to help autistic children, and even as a safety feature. This is the most troubling claim – saying the device can detect if you’re about to fall asleep, and can interact with your smart car to stop you having a crash – because anything that is said to make us safer can end up being deemed mandatory in the future (like wearing a seatbelt). The idea that all of us should be kitted out with sensors such as these, for our ‘safety’, is highly prevalent amongst those promoting self-enhancement. The EU, for instance, endorses the idea of us all having our own personal “Guardian Angel” (worn as a patch), for all of our lives – because they make us ‘safer’. (This is part of the FuturICT Flagship Project, and their other projects are well worth checking out! Watch this video on Guardian Angels from 1:48 to 5:02 to see how all pervasive body-sensors are expected to become!)
Even if there were no tyranny intended, the desires of the Producers are enough to turn us all into slaves. The Producers feed the consumers in a perpetual cycle – that’s all the world is now, just one Big Business. And the Producers need to understand the consumers, so they know what to produce, what to give them, and how to manipulate them into wanting what they have to offer. So advertisers are engaged in neuromarketing, and futurists are sure we will all have our own personalised consumer bubble to live in soon. Our consumption patterns, and our reactions to various products and services, could be continually monitored by brain- and body-sensors, and the advertising targeted at us will be tailored to fit our personal profile. Political parties are already aiming their campaigns at people whose profiles seem sympathetic to their ideals. Data itself is considered a new ‘asset class’, as it has high financial value.
Personal EEG devices generally start out as military endeavours, or are planned as medical aids, but after that there’s money to be made by marketing them to the whole wide world, with a wealth of a extra benefits to be had, especially the acquisition of highly actionable data, such as EEG recordings. Such data will become even more significant if the United Nations manages to implement natural capital accounting, as this involves measuring Global Happiness, which is best done by analysing EEG records.
Mission creep is the scourge of the age.
Neurosky say their main business is supplying the chips needed to make brain-to-computer interfaces possible, and the company is looking to increase its business with other companies wanting to incorporate BCI capabilities into their products. Neurosky’s future will include augmenting the EEG device with sensors that measure, “galvanic skin response (GSR), muscle electromyography (EMG), heartbeat electrocardiography (ECG or EKG), retinal electrooculography (EOG), blood oximetry and other biosensor areas”. All of these physiological variables are also used as biometric identifiers, and as a way to profile personality.
Neurosky assert their product is “unidirectional”, i.e. it sends signals to the computer/app, but cannot receive signals back. However, for many years, neuroscience has been assessing the efficacy of stimulating the brain, such as with pulses of microwave energy, so as to influence mood, intelligence, and even movement. This research goes back to Delgado, who used surgically implanted electrodes, but nothing so crude is needed now. A wireless computer-to-brain interface (CBI) has now been developed, which enables signals to be targeted at an individual’s brain, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation. Results have even been achieved with the development of a brain-to-brain interface (BBI) – through the computer interface, the experimenter was able to move the tail of a rat by mind alone.
With all this in mind, just how far will DARPA get with their solicitation? Four small businesses have been granted nearly$100,000 each to develop the “portable brain recording device and app” – but will any of them manage to make one “without requiring a proprietary interface or dongle”, for as little as $30?
Let’s hope not.