||Defense Department funding
The Boston Globe
August 5, 2003
Even by Washington scandal standards, the "terrorism futures"
scandal was strange and dramatic.
It started when two senators discovered
an obscure military program designed to gauge the chances of various
geopolitical developments, including terrorist attacks, by asking
people to bet money on them. Within 48 hours -- or, more precisely,
two news cycles -- the program was canceled and the man behind it,
John Poindexter of Iran-contra fame, had tendered his resignation.
What most people don't know is that the
Department of Defense is already funding a research program with
far creepier implications.
The $24 million enterprise called Brain
Machine Interfaces is developing technology that promises to directly
read thoughts from a living brain -- and even instill thoughts as
The research, some of which is being done
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is already surprisingly
advanced. Monkeys in a laboratory can control the movement of a
robotic arm using only their thoughts. And last year scientists
in New York announced they could control the skittering motions
of a rat by implanting electrodes in its brain, steering it around
the lab floor as if it were a radio-controlled toy car.
It does not take much imagination to see
in this the makings of a "Matrix"-like cyberpunk dystopia:
chips that impose false memories, machines that scan for wayward
thoughts, cognitively augmented government security forces that
impose a ruthless order on a recalcitrant population.
It is one thing to propose a tasteless
market for gambling on terrorism. It is quite another to set some
of the nation's top neuroscientists to work on mind control.
But though they differ in degree, the
Brain Machine Interface program and the terrorism futures market
share many features. They are shocking. They are bizarre. And they
are far more worthy of taxpayer money than at first they seem.
The terrorism futures idea, the subject
of near hysterical media coverage, is rooted in well-established
economic principles. The Brain Machine Interface program, which
may well be next in the spotlight, could offer help to the paralyzed
and is no more likely to bring about a virtual police state than
technologies that already are available.
With Congress clamoring for much stricter
oversight of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA),
which funds both programs, the episode is less a drama of Poindexter
and a band of mad bureaucrats than it is a reminder of how important
it is for the government to spend some of its resources on the outlandish.
Money from DARPA and other small government agencies, such as the
Office of Naval Research, has produced profound scientific advances,
Nobel Prizes, and technologies -- such as the Internet -- that have
changed the world.
"It is important to have horizons
longer than three years and the chance to try out bold ideas,"
said Tomaso Poggio, one of the MIT scientists involved in Brain
Machine Interfaces. More traditional funding agencies can be so
conservative, Poggio said, that "people sometimes joke that
you have to have done the experiment before you can write the proposal."
Like the futures market, the Brain Machine
Interface program grew out of DARPA's long involvement in information
processing. DARPA is the successor to ARPA, an office that was created
in 1958, in the wake of Sputnik, to push forward scientific research
with potential military applications. ARPA laid the foundation for
what is today the Internet, and also contributed to a wide variety
of computer applications currently in use.
DARPA's brain-machine work, which
is unclassified and eventually will be published in scientific journals,
attracts scientists because it explores some of the central questions
in neuroscience, such as the nature of consciousness and memory,
and the neural code the brain uses to store and process information.
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