Satellite Image of Ayers Rock, Australia. Photo by GeoEye.
The question we tend to pose when we develop computer technology is “How can computers better help us?” But when do we ask “How can humans better help computers?” A team of engineers at Columbia University have addressed this question, and built a brain-computer interface (BCI) prototype that helps computers as much as it helps people. If you follow BCI news, you’ve most likely heard of the partnering of Columbia University and Neuromatters LCC to create C3 Vision (for Cortically Coupled Computer Vision)—a rapid image analysis tool. Professional image analysts in the military sift through thousands of satellite terrain images, seeking specified targets. The work is time-consuming and demanding. Processing loads of data is something computers are great at—picking out abstract features is not. This is where people come in.
When something grabs a person’s attention, a characteristic spike occurs in the electroencephalogram (EEG) reading 300 milliseconds later. This is called the P300 peak, and it happens before the person is even consciously aware of the event. The C3 Vision system detects this P300 peak while a user is viewing a stream of about ten images per second. This technology offers a much faster response time than having to press a button when a target is spotted, and it incorporates human’s ability to distinguish complex features in an image. C3 Vision can greatly benefit military image analysts, federal agents, medical personnel, and anyone else who has to scan large volumes of images.
We’re constantly harnessing the power of computers to enhance the human experience. Conversely, this new BCI will incorporate a uniquely human element in computer technology in order to enhance computer capabilities. We’re on the frontier of a new era in technology. The information age is becoming the attention age, and we’re faced with an ever-increasing demand to assemble swelling torrents of information. In light of this dilemma, tapping into human potential with BCI technology is a no-brainer.