DARPA’s new ‘Brain-Computer Interface’ makes you a pattern recognition machine

brain eeg silicon brain scanYour brain is far better at pattern recognition than any computer, but nearly any computer is better than your brain at certain tasks that require speed and brute-force analysis. What if they could work together as a team?

That’s exactly what DARPA wondered in 2008, when the Pentagon’s research arm launched the Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System (CT2WS).

Basically, a soldier wears an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap that monitors his brain signals as he watches the feed from a 120-megapixel, tripod-mounted, electro-optical video camera with a 120-degree field of view. (Translation: incredible detail in a huge range of vision.)

HRL Laboratories’ principal investigator, Deepak Khosla, explains that before the soldier sees the video, an algorithm mimics how the human brain works and identifies certain potential hot spots. The software marks on the video footage potential hot spots.

EEG sensor brain scanIn a battle situation, there could be many potential threats. That’s where the EEG cap comes in. The system monitors the soldier’s brain as he watches the video, looking for a specific “P300” response, which I’ve previously described as sort of an “Aha!” moment of recognition.

Then, says Khosla, “Out of 100 hot spots in perhaps 10 seconds, those high scoring regions can be presented back to the solder in two or three seconds. Then he can decide what to do.”

In other words, the system helps the soldier scan huge amounts of hard-to-interpret video footage faster and with much higher accuracy.

Here’s how DARPA’s press release describes what happens:

Even though a person may not be consciously aware of movement or of unexpected appearance, the brain detects it and triggers the P-300 brainwave, a brain signal that is thought to be involved in stimulus evaluation or categorization. 

By improving the sensors that capture imagery and filtering results, a human user who is wearing an EEG cap can then rapidly view the filtered image set and let the brain’s natural threat-detection ability work. Users are shown approximately ten images per second, on average. Despite that quick sequence, brain signals indicate to the computer which images were significant.

Chris Berka, CEO and co-founder of Advanced Brain Monitoring, which also worked on the project, explains that since people don’t always consciously recognize their own P300 response, the system automatically investigates responses that a person might not.

Says Berka of ABM’s efforts in general, “A lot of the work we do is trying to optimize the ways that humans interact with machines. There are certain skills and abilities that the human brain is uniquely suited for, one of which is pattern recognition.”

The combined system seems to work better than either a human or a computerized system working alone. DARPA reports:

The cognitive algorithms can highlight many events that would otherwise be considered irrelevant but are actually indications of threats or targets, such as a bird flying by or a branch’s swaying. In testing of the full CT2WS kit, absent radar, the sensor and cognitive algorithms returned 810 false alarms per hour. When a human wearing the EEG cap was introduced, the number of false alarms dropped to only five per hour, out of a total of 2,304 target events per hour, and a 91 percent successful target recognition rate.

This brain-computer Dream Team approach has potential for numerous applications in our work and personal lives. A person sorting through thousands of images or documents or faces could simply pay attention, and when their brain registers recognition, the computer could take over. There would be no need for the person to write down a file name, move the item to a new folder, or take any other action.

brain helmet brainwave scannerKhosla says, “Cognitive algorithms and EEG decoding can be used to detect interesting or anomalous objects or patterns or events in video or other data. In medical applications, they could help diagnose anomalies in radiology images. In video gaming, you could use EEG for simple control. In automotive applications, you could detect threats and control buttons inside a car or apply the brakes.”

Berka adds that one of the challenges is to find the ideal balance between human and computer participation.

“More automation is not always the best thing,” she cautions. “We’ve done some studies with cars that focus on activities such as parallel parking or maintaining how far you are from the vehicle in front of you. It turns out that if you add too much automation, the driver’s attention drifts and they go into a pre-sleep brain pattern. That’s not good, because if you have an emergency and you have to react, you are pretty far away from being alert.”

One giant obstacle to bringing EEG caps, or Brain-Computer Interfaces, out of the laboratory has been the need to use gel in the user’s hair, which for most people is pretty gross. Berka’s firm is now working with Quantum Applied Science & Research and the University of California San Diego on a new dry gel substance that she reports “forms the same conductive bond, but that doesn’t leave any residue in the user’s hair.”

After being successfully field-tested, CT2WS recently moved to Phase Three, where goals include making the system easier to use and even more accurate.

Bruce Kasanoff is a speaker, author and innovation strategist who tracks sensor-driven innovation at Sense of the Future. Kasanoff and co-author Michael Hinshaw teamed up to explore more of the opportunities unearthed by disruptive forces in Smart Customers, Stupid Companies.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: camera with A.I. director, robot arm assistant

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Movies & TV

The best new movie trailers: ‘Spider-Man,’ ‘John Wick,’ Ghostbusters,’ and more

Everyone loves a good trailer, but keeping up with what's new isn't easy. That's why we round up the best ones for you. This week, it's the first trailers for Spider-Man: Far From Home and John Wick: Chapter 3.
Deals

Here’s a look at the hottest 4K TV deals for January 2019

There's no doubt that a good 4K smart TV is the best way to take your home entertainment setup to the next level to enjoy all your favorite shows, movies, and games in glorious Ultra HD. We've got the best 4K TV deals right here.
Movies & TV

Best new shows and movies to stream: ‘Annihilation,’ ‘True Detective’ and more

Need something to watch this weekend? Check out our list of the best new shows and movies to stream right now. On the list this week: Annihilation, the start of a new season of True Detective, and more.
Emerging Tech

Fears about kids’ screen use may have been overblown, Oxford researchers find

Many people take it as gospel that digital technologies are harmful to young people’s mental health. But is this true? A recent study from the University of Oxford takes a closer look.
Emerging Tech

Meet Wiliot, a battery-less Bluetooth chip that pulls power from thin air

A tiny chip from a semiconductor company called Wiliot could harvest energy out of thin air, the company claims. No battery needed. The paper-thin device pulls power from ambient radio frequencies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cell signals.
Emerging Tech

Hexbot is a modular robot arm that does everything from drawing to playing chess

Who wouldn’t want their own personal robot arm to do everything from laser engraving to competing against you in a game of chess? That's what Hexbot, a new modular robot, promises to deliver.
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world will take your breath away

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.
Emerging Tech

Too buzzed to drive? Don’t worry — this autonomous car-bar will drive to you

It might just be the best or worst idea that we've ever heard: A self-driving robot bartender you can summon with an app, which promises to mix you the perfect drink wherever you happen to be.
Emerging Tech

Scientists successfully grow human blood vessels in a Petri dish

Researchers have managed to grow human blood vessels in a Petri dish for the first time, and even to successfully implant them into live mice. The results could be a game-changer for diabetes.
Emerging Tech

Tiny animals discovered in Antarctic lake deep beneath the ice

Scientists have made a surprising discovery in Antarctica: the carcasses of tiny animals including crustaceans and a tardigrade were found in a lake that sits deep beneath over half a mile of Antarctic ice.
Emerging Tech

How long is a day on Saturn? Scientists finally have an answer

The length of Saturn's day has always been a challenge to calculate because of the planet's non-solid surface and magnetic field. But now scientists have tracked vibrations in the rings to pin down a final answer.
Emerging Tech

Google plots radar-sensing tech that could make any object smart

Computer scientists have shown how Google’s Soli sensor can be used to make dumb objects smart. Here's why radar-powered computing could finally make the dream of smart homes a reality.
Emerging Tech

Tiny microbots fold like origami to travel through the human body

Tiny robots modeled after bacteria could be used to deliver drugs to hard to reach areas of the human body. Scientists have developed elastic microbots that can change their shape depending on their environment.