The Pentagon’s been trying to get ahead of the curve on neuroscience for years, toying with ideas like mind-reading whether people are lying and performance-degrading drugs for enemy combatants. Now, it’s launching a major effort to harness neuroscience in a way that might better prepare soldiers for the mental rigors of modern warfare.
In a series of small business solicitations released last week, the Office of the Secretary of Defense outlined plans for a new “Cognitive Readiness Technology” program with the aim of “making our warfighters as cognitively strong as they are physically strong.”
Neuroscience is at the locus of the program. 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) 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 has tried to map the human mind. Last year, 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 has also tried to create synthetic versions of living brains, complete with “neuroscience-inspired architecture.”
The military wants cognitive mapping to help assess troop readiness in a war-zone. Their small-business solicitations include a request for embeddable body sensors that could automatically determine mental preparedness, which can be influenced by factors like fatigue, cognitive overload or stress, based on physiological and neural data. The sensors would do more than just analyze the cognitive status of their wearer — they’d be combined with the data from other team members, to instantly identify just how performance-ready a given unit actually is.
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.
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