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Military funds mind-reading science

Saturday, August 16, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Here's a mind-bending idea: The U.S. military is paying scientists to study ways to read people's thoughts.

The hope is that the research could someday lead to a gadget capable of translating the thoughts of soldiers who suffered brain injuries in combat or even stroke patients in hospitals. But the research also raises concerns that such mind-reading technology could be used to interrogate the enemy.

Armed with a $4 million grant from the Army, scientists are studying brain signals to try to decipher what a person is thinking and to whom the person wants to direct the message.

The project is a collaboration among researchers at the University of California, Irvine; Carnegie Mellon University; and the University of Maryland.

The scientists use brain wave-reading technology known as electroencephalography, or EEG, which measures the brain's electrical activity through electrodes placed on the scalp.

It works like this: Volunteers wear an electrode cap and are asked to think of a word chosen by the researchers, who then analyze the brain activity.

In the future, scientists hope to develop thought-recognition software that would allow a computer to speak or type out a person's thought.

"To have a person think in a free manner and then figure out what that is, we're years away from that," said lead researcher Michael D'Zmura, who heads UC Irvine's cognitive sciences department.

D'Zmura said such a system would require extensive training by people trying to send a message and dismisses the notion that thoughts can be forced out.

"This will never be used in a way without somebody's real, active cooperation," he said.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based defense research firm, said the technology is still too nascent to be of practical use for the military.

"They're still in the proof of principle stage," Pike said.

A message left with the Army was not immediately returned Friday.


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