Transforming Defence: Brain Computer Interfaces


Dr Helen Dudfield - Chief Scientist, Human Performance and Protection and QinetiQ Senior Fellow

Mind and matter

For a long time, the brain has been thought of a mysterious ‘black box’, but we are continuing to develop a better understanding of how it works. Neuroscience is a relatively new discipline, and Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs) are playing a big part in its development and application. BCIs (particularly the use of non-invasive systems that measure brain states) can be seen as a subset of the field of human augmentation (HA) - which is concerned with improving human performance through a variety of hardware and software applications.

Overload and underload

Today’s personnel, in defence and beyond, must deal with more data (and more data sources) than ever before. Their roles require fast, accurate decisions - and this can result in cognitive overload, which could cloud judgement or hamper performance in critical situations. However, defence is only a small subset of BCI’s possible uses. It’s likely to see heavy use in medicine - for example, to help treat the degenerative brain diseases, rebuild language in people who have suffered a stroke, help those who are paralysed, and stimulate areas such as memory and language through brain computer stimulation. 

BCIs also have the potential to greatly enhance human machine teaming (HMT). ‘Adaptive’ brain computer interfaces, with the ability to respond to an operator’s needs, could help to avoid such cognitive overload (or in some cases, underload). For example, if the system knows that an operator is overwhelmed, it could reduce the display of information or direct focus towards an area that is more important. BCIs could also provide a control mechanism, for example, freeing up the hands and allowing operation at ‘the speed of thought’, decreasing reaction times. Such a capability would be invaluable for frontline personnel, where rapid reactions are important.

Learning and deciding

Another area of interest for BCIs is in learning. For example, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has been exploring the use of BCIs combined with augmented reality as part of its ‘Individualized Neural Learning System’ (iNeuraLS) - which is designed to speed up skill acquisition in personnel. AI sees already common use as an aid to simple decision making, but recent work at Essex University is exploring the use of BCIs as an aid to complex decision making in human groups, guided by an AI assistant. The researchers’ system identifies ‘neural and behavioural correlates of decision confidence… for real-time estimates and prediction of decision confidence and user mental states… as well as identifying the behavioural, physiological and neural markers of effective group cooperation.’

What next for BCIs?

Electroencephalogram (EEG) ‘nets’ placed on the head to record brain activity are fairly common and non-invasive. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is an existing technology, which both activates and suppresses targeted brain areas related to a task or condition. TMS is more common in medical treatment - for example, unresponsive depression and stroke, or as means to increase the plasticity of the brain, post injury. But it's not without controversy.

An alternative is invasive systems that use arrays of fine wires to sense neuron (or neuron group) responses and stimulate specific brain areas. These are at an early stage of development, and face infection and instability problems. This, combined with ethical and risk issues, has led to hesitancy in many countries to test such invasive devices.

Substantial research into non-invasive BCIs has been undertaken over the last few years in defence. We are also seeing promising applications in wellbeing and workload management, but such devices are very much in the early stages. We believe that non-invasive BCIs will likely become part of the norm in human augmentation systems, but the future of invasive systems is much less certain.

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