Senior Army scientist explains how computational neuroscience can enable Soldiers to tap into their brain’s full potential
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- In the future, smart technology will likely dominate the battlefield as Soldiers work alongside autonomous agents to complete their mission.
Army leaders predict that artificial intelligence will play a vital role in Multi-Domain Operations, where it will streamline important tasks and augment the capabilities of Soldiers beyond their current scope.
The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, now known as DEVCOM, Army Research Laboratory continues to push the boundaries of artificial intelligence research in preparation for this future. But according to Dr. Piotr Franaszczuk, researchers have not forgotten the human side of this technological advancement.
“We have to understand exactly how people work in teams and then how these teams will work with automated equipment,” Franaszczuk said. “Neuroscience will play a large part in this, because it can help us understand not only how future AI will work but also how people will have to adapt to this new environment.”
As the Army’s senior research scientist for Soldier performance neuroscience, Franaszczuk advises Army leaders on the topic of computational neuroscience, a branch of neuroscience which employs mathematics, physics and computer science to model how the brain works.
Listen to an in-depth interview with Franaszczuk in the Dec. 17, 2020, episode of the What We Learned Today podcast.
Franaszczuk believes that in order for the Army to successfully transition to this new phase of warfare, it needs to consider how Soldiers will respond to this revolutionary change on the horizon.
“In the future battlefield, Soldiers will have a much larger cognitive load,” Franaszczuk said. “They will need to absorb more information, deal with more complex situations and interact with smarter equipment. They will be under constant stress.”
An immigrant from Poland, Franaszczuk entered the United States after he earned his PhD degree in physics at the University of Warsaw, where he studied computational models of the brain.
During the early 1990s, he became part of a new wave of researchers who applied methods from physics and mathematics to fields such as biology and medicine.
“At the time, there weren’t many people from backgrounds in physics or mathematics who worked in clinical departments at schools of medicine,” Franaszczuk said.
“Actually, interactions between physicians and people with this kind of background led to new diagnostic methods and therapies for diseases like epilepsy.”
After his postdoctoral fellowship, Franaszczuk conducted research at the University of Maryland before he joined the Neurology Department at Johns Hopkins University, where he investigated brain activity in epileptic patients.
His research in advanced signal processing and computational models of brain activities aided the development of a device that, once implanted in the patient’s brain, can detect the onset of an epileptic seizure and even prevent its occurrence.
“There is a lot of data right now that these types of devices can help epileptic patients prevent seizures or at least reduce the frequency of seizures from several times a day to only once per month,” Franaszczuk said. “This is the kind of thing which was made possible once we introduced some of the methods from physics and mathematics to treatments with electrical stimulation, in addition to the traditional drugs.”
While Franaszczuk still serves as an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins, he has since applied his research to Soldiers to learn more about their cognitive functions.
“Modeling the brain and applying signal processing to brain signals will allow us to see what is happening in the brain if it’s fatigued or stressed and even how outside simulation may affect it,” Franaszczuk said. “This knowledge can help us in understanding Soldier fatigue or how their performance can be improved by influencing the brain in some way.”
According to Franaszczuk, advancements in computational neuroscience can help both sides of the relationship between Soldiers and their future autonomous partners.
A more sophisticated understanding of the brain can help humans adapt faster to an environment dominated by algorithms and autonomous systems, but it can also help researchers develop more user-friendly AI technologies that naturally facilitate the learning process behind their operation.
In addition to the augmentation of human capabilities, this area of neuroscience research may enable the Army to provide better treatment to Soldiers off the battlefield, like with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Sometimes we can see how Soldiers who endure blasts experience PTSD effects later,” Franaszczuk said. “We want to know how different blasts affect the brain. Even if you can’t see the damage with traditional methods of imaging, we can try to identify the more subtle differences so that we can diagnose the problem earlier and help Soldiers overcome this effect.”
Even beyond computational neuroscience, Franaszczuk explains that the Army can benefit greatly from a multi-disciplinary approach toward many of its goals.
By introducing people with new perspectives to age-old problems, the Army may potentially see drastic improvements in the performance of both Soldiers and their tools.
“One of our goals is to try to bring people with different backgrounds and expertise to relevant problems for future Soldiers,” Franaszczuk said. “That’s not limited to neuroscience, either. It’s about how we can apply all the things we learned from physics, mathematics, computer science and other scientific disciplines to improve Soldier performance.”
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DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. As the Army’s corporate research laboratory, ARL is operationalizing science to achieve transformational overmatch. Through collaboration across the command’s core technical competencies, DEVCOM leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more successful at winning the nation’s wars and come home safely. DEVCOM is a major subordinate command of the Army Futures Command.