By Jake Davis

Until the computers take over and start making all the decisions (thanks to James Cameron, we know how that ends), military analysts have a keen problem: too much data. Everything, from digital phone records to constantly updated satellite imagery, must be sifted, interpreted and employed by the intelligence services to make Very Important Decisions. Managing all this data has been an insurmountible task, but time, it rolls along, giving us shinier gadgets and sleeker iPhones. And according to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) just might have come up with a solution.

Essentially, neuroscientists have devised a computer system that tracks the brain activity of analysts as they follow visual stimuli; there is a measurable spike whenever they respond to a scene or an image that seems to contain information. So, analysts wired up to electrodes will have as many as 20 images per second flit before their eyes, and a computer keeps track of the ones that excite their brain with tantalizations of possible meaning. The system isn't fully automated—it's piggybacking on the analysts' ability to discern sense from dross—but it greatly compresses the amount of time needed to needle-hunt in haystacks of visual data.

There are several interesting aspects to this technology, if you can get past the fact that it's being used to more efficiently direct military decisions. The main one, I think, is that it relies on latent capacities of the individuals whose heads are being scanned. There is no way to externalize the sense-finding capability of human sight (yet), but by scanning the way in which seasoned analysts passively respond to stimuli, the DARPA project makes visible what would seem to be an invisible part of our habitual, reflexive interpretation of reality. Because the snap of recognition that information might be present—it occurs about 300 milliseconds after a stimulus appears—passes so rapidly, a person's conscious inclinations or beliefs do not enter into the situation.

Which of course makes you wonder whether this tech could be used to reveal our most cherished, and unvocalized, assumptions about the world. Hitch somebody to the rig, flash a series of images in front of their eyes, and measure their response: you could find out if they can discern script from chickenscratch, what sort of body ellicits the most excitement, and probably whether they harbor prejudice toward specific types of person. The hidden aspects, the habituated, reality-informing reflexes that incline our minds to see this or that as a bearer of significance, could be teased out, investigated, and responded to.

The military probably won't be very interested in these personal DARP-lications, except maybe in determining which circle of hell to condemn folks to at a black site. But, just as Big Dog gave us Roomba, you can expect cortex-scanning products to trickle down into consumer markets. In the Chronicle article, they postulate a catalog you don't even read: there's merely a flit of images, and the computer lets you know what struck your fancy.

In the future, you won't even have to admit your own desires to have them gratified.

Image: Qubik Design