Offed With Your Head

Science, technology, and life.
July 24 2008 9:31 AM

Offed With Your Head

The Human Nature article on Slate 's cover today is about a military drone-piloting system that looks like a video game but kills real people . You control it with joysticks and buttons. The company that developed it, Raytheon, sees it as a logical progression for recruits who come into the military knowing how to play games like Doom and Halo.

The question is: Will the transition be too smooth? Will these young pilots, reclining comfortably in their "virtual cockpits" in Nevada as their drones fly over Iraq, feel as though they're playing a game?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Now imagine taking this merger of games and killing one step further. Imagine controlling the drone directly with your mind. Imagine firing the missile just by thinking it.

Imagination is a dangerous thing. It can already fire weapons in video games. Here's the report from this weekend's Sunday Telegraph :

British scientists are turning the vision into reality with a device that allows objects to be manipulated with brain waves. The prototype ... can already be used to play simple computer games. By imagining a movement, the wearer of the hat-shaped device can tell the computer to move an object around a screen or a robot around a room. ...
The development came as the video games maker Nintendo disclosed that it wanted to build on the success of the motion-sensitive technology used in the best-selling console, the Wii, by developing games that can be controlled by thought.
To pick up the signal from the brain, the scientists use a cap fitted with electrodes that detect changes in the electrical activity produced by the neurons. When a person wearing the cap imagines a particular action, such as moving a hand, it produces a distinct pattern of signals that a computer learns to recognise.

While Nintendo works on deploying this technology, two other companies are already there, according to the New York Times :

Put on the headset, made by Emotiv Systems in San Francisco, and when a giant boulder blocks the path in a game you are playing, you can levitate it not by something as crude as a keystroke, but just by concentrating on raising it, said Tan Le, Emotiv's president. The headset captures electrical signals when you concentrate; then the computer processes these signals and pairs a screen action with them ... Emotiv plans to have its noninvasive, wireless EPOC headset ($299) on sale in time for Christmas, Ms. Le said. ... So far, [Emotiv's R&D manager] said, all 200 testers of the headset had indeed been able to move on-screen objects mentally.
Another headset, the Neural Impulse Actuator ($169), just released by the OCZ Technology Group in Sunnyvale, Calif., has three sensors in a headband that pick up electrical activity primarily from muscles and convert it into commands ... Players of shooting games, for instance, may use eye movement to trigger a shot, shaving milliseconds off of their response time and sparing their hands.

Scientific American has more on how the Emotiv headset reads your mind .

So now we're looking at two mergers: mind-controlled action with video games, and video games with killing. Firing weapons with your mind used to be imaginary . Now, like so many imagined things, it's becoming real.

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