Go back to 1982. Clint Eastwood had stepped out of his traditional western and Dirty Harry roles to play Mitchell Gant, an ace pilot who is recruited to steal the Soviet’s new secret weapon: the Firefox. The plane is supposedly faster, less detectable and more maneuverable than anything NATO could produce and they need to get the technology. Did I mention that is also has an advanced weapons system that can be controlled by the pilot’s mind through a special helmet? Yeah right, no freaking way.
Step forward twenty-six years and the idea isn’t so far-fetched. In 2008, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University announced they had successfully implanted sensors in the brains of macaques monkeys that allowed them to control a robotic arm with their thoughts. In 2012 the experiment was successfully repeated with a quadriplegic woman. In each of these cases the sensors in the subjects’ brains were connected via wires to the robotic arms. If with current technology we are able to control devices wired to our brains, imagine what will be possible at the turn of the 22nd century. The devices under research today are hard-wired. The sensor grid sits on the motor cortex over cells that control movement of the hands and arms. It intercepts signals the brain creates and translates them into inputs for the robotic arm.
Am I ready to bet that a device like the helmet Eastwood wore in Firefox will be available in 90 years? No, I’m not yet ready to make that leap. I seldom say anything is impossible, but I wouldn’t put money on sensors external to the body being able to read our thoughts; not in the next 90 years, at least. Still, sensors can be implanted and people will take the risks to get them put into their heads. I doubt we’ll see the technology in use for such mundane things as controlling your TV (or whatever might replace it), but many para- and quadriplegics, amputees and other disabled people would more than likely agree to go through with the procedure to get the use of their limbs back. Then there’s the military.
In my first book I introduce the notion of a Man-Weapon Interface, or MWI. The idea here is that a future iteration of these sensors would be implanted in the brains of soldiers and top law enforcement personnel By then I think it would be safe to say that other advances in miniaturization of control hardware and transmission equipment would allow such a device to be wireless and small enough that the subject wouldn’t even know they are there. Though I don’t go into this in the book, either advanced miniature batteries or, my favorite, bio-electric energy from the user’s body would power the device. It would pair with various equipment, much like Bluetooth technology does today.
The uses for this technology would be limitless on the battlefield. Consider today a weapons controller faced with multiple targets. He has to identify which target to go after, his brain has to send signals to his hands to allow them to identify the desired target for the targetting system. The system has to then deliver feedback that the target has been locked onto. The controller has to process that feedback then the whole process starts over again to fire the weapon. On tomorrow’s battlefield that same controller simply has to look at a target on a screen then think about selecting it, think about the desired weapon to use and finally think about firing upon it. What can easily take seconds today could be reduced to as little as a hundred milliseconds tomorrow.
The technology could also have uses with an individual soldier. Another concept I introduce is a personal weapon with selectable ammunition. I’ll get into the details of how such a weapon would work in another post, but suffice to say that it allows a shooter to choose between different ammunition without having to change clips. On today’s battlefield if a shooter wants to switch ammunition he has to remove the clip from the weapon, find a clip with the desired type, insert the new magazine into the weapon and chamber a round – it takes a lot of time, the shooter likely has to drop to cover and will likely lose sight of the target. Consider the following scenario: a shooter fires a standard hollow point round. It bounces harmlessly off the target’s body armor. He thinks, Ammo: Armor Piercing and without taking eyes off the target the next shot penetrates and takes him down.
The civilian uses of a “mind reading” technology are already being tested. I’m anxious to see how the military adopts it.