Cover Story 1/3/00
Reading your mind-and injecting smart thoughts
By Douglas Pasternak
Buck Rogers, meet John Norseen. Like the comic-strip hero, a 20th-century man stuck in the 25th century, Norseen feels he's not quite in the right time: His brain-research ideas are simply too futuristic. And he admits his current obsession seems to have been lifted from a Rogers saga. The Lockheed Martin neuroengineer hopes to turn the "electrohypnomentalophone," a mind-reading machine invented by one of Buck's buddies, from science fiction into science fact.
Norseen's interest in the brain stems from a Soviet book he read in the mid-1980s, claiming that research on the mind would revolutionize the military and society at large. The former Navy pilot coined the term "BioFusion" to cover his plans to map and manipulate gray matter, leading (he hopes) to advances in medicine, national security, and entertainment. He does not do the research but sees himself as the integrator of discoveries that will make BioFusion a reality.
BioFusion would be able to convert thoughts into computer commands, predicts Norseen, by deciphering the brain's electrical activity. Electromagnetic pulses would trigger the release of the brain's own neurotransmitters to fight off disease, enhance learning, or alter the mind's visual images, creating what Norseen has dubbed "synthetic reality."
The key is finding "brain prints." "Think of your hand touching a mirror," explains Norseen. "It leaves a fingerprint." BioFusion would reveal the fingerprints of the brain by using mathematical models. "Just like you can find one person in a million through fingerprints," he says, "you can find one thought in a million."
It sounds crazy, but Uncle Sam is listening. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center have all awarded small basic research contracts to Norseen, who works for Lockheed Martin's Intelligent Systems Division. Norseen is waiting to hear if the second stage of these contractsportions of them classifiedcomes through.
Norseen's theories are grounded in current science. Mapping human brain functions is now routine. By viewing a brain scan recorded by a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, scientists can tell what the person was doing at the time of the recordingsay, reading or writing. Emotions from love to hate can be recognized from the brain's electrical activity.
Thought police. So could the murderous thoughts of a terrorist, asserts Norseen, who wrote his thesis at the Naval War College on applying neuroscience research to antiterrorism. He has submitted a research-and-development plan to the Pentagon, at its request, to identify a terrorist's mental profile. A miniaturized brain-mapping device inside an airport metal detector would screen passengers' brain patterns against a dictionary of brain prints. Norseen predicts profiling by brain print will be in place by 2005.
A pilot could fly a plane by merely thinking, says Norseen. Scientists have already linked mind and machine by implanting electrodes into a paralyzed man's brain; he can control a computer's cursor with his mind. Norseen would like to draw upon Russian brain-mimicking software and American brain-mapping breakthroughs to allow that communication to take place in a less invasive way. A modified helmet could record a pilot's brain waves. "When you say right 090 degrees," says Norseen, the computer would see that electrical pattern in the brain and turn the plane 090 degrees. If the pilot misheard instructions to turn 090 degrees and was thinking "080 degrees," the helmet would detect the error, then inject the right number via electromagnetic waves.
If this research pans out, says Norseen, "you can begin to manipulate what someone is thinking even before they know it." But Norseen says he is "agnostic" on the moral ramifications, that he's not a mad scientistjust a dedicated one. "The ethics don't concern me," he says, "but they should concern someone else."