The Military’s Shocking Plan to Keep Soldiers Awake
By Jon Sung on October 25, 2014
By Jon Sung
Ever had nightmares about falling asleep at the wheel? Or felt your eyelids start to gain serious weight after eight hours in the driver's seat on a long road trip? Sure, coffee might help—at least for a while—but what about the nasty jitters and inevitable crash the caffeine will eventually foist upon you? What if there was another way to stay on your toes?
Believe it or not, the U.S. Air Force is experimenting with low-powered electrical shocks to keep drone control officers awake and alert instead of caffeine, according to the Boston Globe. Drone control is a tough job, but not for the reasons you'd expect. Flying by joystick can start to get boring if you're not actually on the plane, for starters. You can't feel the bump and jostle of the wind you're cutting through so you’re reduced to staring at a set of screens and gauges... and screens and gauges... and screens and gauge… Zzzzzzzz.
And what happens if you're assigned a target? Someone else has to look at your video feed and comb through it for clues, trying to distinguish between a civilian farmer with a rake, and an enemy combatant with a surface-to-air missile launcher. That takes serious concentration; nobody wants to make the wrong call there. Would a case of the caffeine shakes help or hurt control officers making a life-or-death decisions on the eighth hour of their shift? The Air Force believes it would hurt, and has started looking into the benefits of zapping people instead of caffeinating them.
That's not even the craziest part. Their research shows that electric shocks actually seem to work better than caffeine and lack all the jittery, heart-racing, crash-prone side effects of a cup of joe. If electricity can keep us awake and alert, what else can it do?
How about bring people back from the brink of death—or beyond?
Every day, we're making progress into functional neuroimaging. Not just seeing what the brain's structure looks like, but which parts do what—while we're busy using them. What makes this useful? When it comes right down to it, all brain activity is just the firing of neurons: electrical impulses jumping from one cell to another. Look at an apple and specific sets of neurons fire, coming together to make sense of your optic nerve input, your stored knowledge, and your cognitive centers to identify what you're seeing—red, round with memories of taste, sweet or tart. Flex your thumbs and whole different sets of neurons are at work, sending commands to specific muscles. There are entire chunks of the brain devoted to nothing but keeping the lights on, as it were, making sure all your internal organs are doing what they're supposed to, every second of every day.
Neurons fire electrical impulses at each other. What happens if they misfire, or go dark? With the right knowledge and technology, couldn't we jumpstart them back up again? Say we wanted to rehabilitate sufferers of neural trauma by precisely stimulating key areas of a healthy cortex for productivity or pleasure, or even... reversing brain death.
Seriously! Suppose you're minding your own business out on a wilderness trail and a rattlesnake bites you—by the time someone gets you to a hospital, you might be dead. What if there's an area of your neural tissue that just needs to be zapped correctly with the right amount of electricity in order to kick start the rest of your brain? It sounds farfetched, but if it means being able to cheat death, I'm willing to give it a shot.
Fortunately, the Air Force has found a way to electrically stimulate the cortex to useful ends in the here and now, even though the results aren't as dramatic as resurrection from the brink of death. Now before anyone with an overactive imagination starts worrying about Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, here are some numbers that might be of interest: a standard electroconvulsive therapy (otherwise known as shock therapy) dose is somewhere in the range of 800 milliamperes, while the Air Force tests were conducted at a strength of 1 milliampere. At most, the current seems to produce a mild tingle or, in rare cases, the area the electrodes are applied to get slightly itchy.
Of course, we've got a lot of mapping, research, and testing to do before we can revive someone after a fatal accident, but I think we're getting there. For now, I'll take being able to stay awake and fully focused for more than 24 hours at a time without ever reaching for a caffeine fix. Maybe Starbucks should explore investing in mocha electrode development?
Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.