Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts: How a 1960s discovery in neuroscience spawned a military project

from In a small, anonymous office in the Trump Tower, 28 floors above Wall Street, a man sits in front of a computer screen sifting through satellite images of a foreign desert. The images depict a vast, sandy emptiness, marked every so often by dunes and hills. He is searching for man-made structures: houses, compounds, airfields, any sign of civilization that might be visible from the sky. The images flash at a rate of 20 per second, so fast that before he can truly perceive the details of each landscape, it is gone. He pushes no buttons, takes no notes. His performance is near perfect. Or rather, his brain’s performance is near perfect. The man has a machine strapped to his head, an array of electrodes called an electroencephalogram, or EEG, which is recording his brain activity as each image skips by. It then sends the brain-activity data wirelessly to a large computer. The computer has learned what the man’s brain activity looks like when he sees one of the visual targets, and, based on that information, it quickly reshuffles the images. When the man sorts back through the hundreds of images—most without structures, but some with—almost all the ones with buildings in them pop to the front of the pack. His brain and the computer have done good work. That display was a demonstration of a new technology being developed through a collaboration between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military’s research arm, and a private company called Neuromatters, which was founded by a team led by the Columbia University bioengineer Paul Sajda. The hope is that, in the near future, military analysts might use the technology to eliminate worthless images in seconds, speeding up their review of satellite images by orders of magnitude. By the looks of it, it’s working. The program, called Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts, or NIA, is just one of many being pursued by Darpa, as the agency is known, to translate basic neuroscience research into tools that will make the military more able and efficient.  Other projects Darpa finances include one to test whether sending electricity through the brain can accelerate learning; another that seeks to use psychology and neuroscience to understand which types of communication best convince those living in occupied lands that they should yield to American forces, a sort of Propaganda 2.0; and a project aimed at developing drugs that would reduce or erase traumatic memories.
… In the 1990s, the military began to realize it had a problem: too many pictures and not enough eyeballs. Specifically, it had a glut of satellite images, photos covering every inch of the planet, waiting to be sifted, scrutinized, and analyzed for any precious bits of intelligence. Paul Sajda, who would later found Neuromatters and develop the NIA program, learned of this problem on a visit to the National Photographic Interpretation Center, in Washington, D.C., in 1995. The center was staffed with hundreds of analysts whose job was to sort painstakingly through piles and piles of satellite images, looking for communications lines one day, rebel camps the next

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