-DARPA spies on analyst brains; hopes to offload image analysis to computers.

Posted: October 22, 2008 in 2007, Articles
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ars technica:

As things currently stand, computers have some pretty severe limitations when it comes to image analysis, as they frequently misidentify the basic components of an image. That leaves humans the undisputed champs at recognizing significant features of photographs. From a military and intelligence perspective, this is a big problem: it’s easy to obtain images, meaning trained image analysts are the big bottlenecks when it comes to intelligence. To avoid this problem, DARPA is working on developing a human/machine hybrid process to speed the screening of image data.

The work takes advantage of the fact that the brain does a lot of work in filtering visual information before making the conscious mind aware of what has been seen. This can take the form of weeding out distractions, generating associations, and identifying features that may be worthy of further attention. All of these process happen even if images are only visible for fractions of a second.

The DARPA program funds Honeywell to work with academic researchers to listen in on the brain’s internal conversation to help filter out those images that aren’t worth detailed analysis. Trained analysts are fitted with electrodes that monitored their brain activity, and then shown stacks of 50 images in rapid succession.

Each image was visible for only 50-100 milliseconds, meaning the analysts could view many thousand images in the span of an hour (details of the work are available on pages 26-36 of this PDF). The researchers found that distinct patterns of electrical activity were apparent starting 250 milliseconds after a target image was visible. Images that trigger this signal can be tagged as meriting more careful analysis.

According to the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Honeywell is now ready to demonstrate the system, and is already on looking to expand its scope to medical imaging. One thing that’s not been mentioned in this material, however, is how the analysts feel after enduring a 20-minute-long image bombardment.

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