In Afghanistan, some soldiers are said to possess a sixth sense.
They hone their skills at the head of convoys that trundle along the dusty roads of remote mountainous provinces. As they drive, these soldiers scan ahead for signs of roadside bombs: disturbed earth, a glint of metal, or just something that seems out of place. Spotting them can mean the difference between life and death. Those who are half-jokingly said to possess the “sixth sense” are the ones that seem to have an uncanny ability to spot these almost imperceptible signs of danger.
Now, military scientists are beginning to build technologies that would give every soldier this ability, pushing the field of neuroscience from the lab and on to the battlefield.
These devices exploit what neuroscientists call the P300, a wave of brain activity that signifies an unconscious recognition of a visual object, and is so-named because it occurred about 300 milliseconds after stimulation. The P300 can be thought of as the biological basis of the sixth sense.
The problem is that it may take several seconds for the brain to become conscious of what it’s seen, and in Afghanistan, that brief time can mean the difference between spotting a bomb, and driving over it and setting it off.
But a device known as an electroencephalogram (EEG) can spot that P300 signal. Hooked into a sophisticated computer that can interpret the signal, it can immediately alert a person to a potential threat, taking a short cut through the brain’s normal conscious processing. Combined with advanced optics, it is possible to imagine a Terminator-like vision system that scans an area and immediately identifies and categorises threats.
Although it sounds far-fetched, this is roughly the idea behind a new military technology called Sentinel (SystEm for Notification of Threats Inspired by Neurally Enabled Learning), which is being touted as the world’s first “cognitive-neural” binocular threat-warning system.
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