Man Meets Machine

The future of combat will merge computer systems with the human mind


The combat environment of the future will be defined by adaptive human-machine teaming. Panelists at Defense One’s Tech Summit July 13 discussed how advances in artificial intelligence and autonomous systems will yield a new class of warfighter—more capable, aware, and connected.

Imagine an Air Force pilot flying an aircraft equipped with highly complex sensor platforms collecting data not only about the jet and the surrounding environment, but the pilot as well. Those sensors could measure the pilot’s responsiveness and heart rate to determine his or her capacity to execute the mission—are they conscious and alert? Should the aircraft take corrective measures (such as unloading G’s of force) to get the pilot back to maximum performance?

This is the shape of the frontier to come—warfighters neurologically connected to their weapons and operating systems. Deep learning will allow automated, intelligent systems to adjust to the real-time condition of their human operator, helping them make better decisions.

To explore this emerging field, research teams are focusing on the collection of biometric data—the biophysical information people unconsciously produce when they think, breathe, and move.

According to Dr. Justin Brooks, a scientist with the Army Research Lab (ARL), “The fundamental issue is: what is the natural variability humans tend to express? We want to understand how their cognitive states, their emotional states, and their physical states all vary and co-mingle together. We ultimately want to build technologies that can adapt to those natural variations.”

ARL has constructed a program that will observe individual human behavior continuously for months or even years at a time. Behavioral and biometric data will be collected using wearable monitors and environmental sensors, with the goal being to shed light on the causal elements of human variability and to help teach technology how humans think and act.

Dr. James Christensen, a portfolio manager at the Air Force Research Lab, described the ability to sense and understand the state and capabilities of the operator as critical to the military’s successful employment of highly automated systems.

“The speed of the decision cycle with these kinds of systems is going to be so fast that they have to be sensitive and responsive to the state of the individual in their intent as much as their actions,” Christensen said.

Supporting research in the field is focused particularly on the human brain. Dr. Justin Sanchez, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Biological Technologies Office, spoke about the challenge of developing precise neuro-technologies that interact with certain circuits of the brain or peripheral nervous system in real time, monitoring for changes in brain signals.

According to Sanchez, DARPA has succeeded in creating a direct neural interface for movement and sensation by connecting sensors to specific neurons within the brain.

“Think about somebody who has lost the ability to move or feel a limb. We can restore that function,” Sanchez said. “Think about memory. We can develop a direct interface to the brain to help facilitate the formation recall of memory after you’ve sustained a traumatic brain injury.”

In its Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, for example, DARPA created a virtual flight simulator for a quadriplegic person. Using the neural interface to interact with the simulator, this individual was able to fly a virtual aircraft over Paris.

“That was a real wake up call for everybody involved. … You could potentially remap your neural signatures onto the different control surfaces [of the plane],” Sanchez said. “These initial demonstrations help us think about what might be possible in the future, and that’s the exciting part.”

Christensen spoke about a biometric camera capable of measuring blood flow to the frontal cortex (indicating heart rate and stress levels) from distances of up to 300 feet. Because this capability relies on quality optics, it is conceivable to someday measure this blood flow data from space—allowing collection of biometric data from huge populations.

Brooks said he is excited about ARL’s research into stimulation of the vagus nerve through the inner ear—an area of the peripheral nervous system linked to an individual’s emotions. Brooks suggested that during stressful situations such as intense shooting exercises, correctly timed stimulation of the vagus nerve with an implant could calm a warfighter and immediately improve performance.

Though still in the early phases of development and application, wearable biotech shows promise as well.

Panel moderator and Defense One technology editor Patrick Tucker brought onstage a Marine Corps headset designed for warfighters to wear into battle. From the interface, the wearer can select whether they need water, supplies, ammunition, and more. The mission commander can see which operators need which supplies, allowing for proper resource allocation. The next generation of the headset will incorporate measurement of warfighter biometrics.

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