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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
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 contracts - portions
of them classified - comes 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
recording - say, 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-mimicing 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 degees,”
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 thinldng “080 degees,” 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” scientist - just a dedicated one. “The
ethics don’t concern me,” he says, “but they should concern someone else.”
Name: John Norseen.
Born: July 17,1954, Pittsburgh.
Education: B.S., Penn State, M.S., University of Southern California.
Credo: “To endure, prevail, and conquer.”
Goal: to be czar of U.S. BioFusion Research.
Biggest thrill: being catapulted in a jet off an aircraft carrier.
U.S. News & World Report,
January 3/January 10, 2000, pp. 67, 68.