Sunday, October 08, 2006

Computers that read your mind

Sep 21st 2006

Software: Systems that work out what users are doing, and then respond accordingly, could help people to work more effectively

DO YOU use the internet while watching television, listen to music while working at your computer, or read e-mail while talking on the phone? According to Linda Stone, a former Microsoft and Apple executive, this is the era of â??continuous partial attentionâ?�. People flit constantly between technologies, yet never devote their undivided attention to any of them, she observes. The e-mails, instant messages, text messages, calendar alerts, telephone calls and the occasional, old-fashioned face-to-face conversation are all competing for their share of your awareness. Part of the problem is that today's technologies lack the intelligence to determine when to interrupt peopleâ??and, more importantly, when to leave them be.

Now a new class of technologies is being designed to help users to regain their focus and enjoy more lucidity and concentration. The new field is known as â??augmented cognitionâ?�, and it employs sensors to infer the mental state of someone using a device. Rather than trying to read the user's mind directlyâ??the approach taken in a different field, known as brain-computer interfaces (BCI)â??augmented cognition has a subtly but crucially different aim. BCI devices are used to control things in the physical world, such as a cursor on a screen, a wheelchair or even a prosthetic limb. Augmented cognition, in contrast, focuses on deducing a cognitive state with the aim of somehow enhancing it.

So when someone is overwhelmed with information, an augmented cognition system would try to help him cope by diverting some of it. Naturally enough, augmented cognition has captured the imagination of the armed forcesâ??the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is one of its biggest backers. That is because today's military personnel are bombarded not just by the enemy, but also by information, says Dylan Schmorrow, previously the founder and programme manager of DARPA's AugCog programme. (Dr Schmorrow, who now works at the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia, will also chair an international conference on augmented cognition which takes place next month in San Francisco.)


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