In New Military, Data Overload Can Be Deadly
“Information overload — an accurate description,” said one senior military officer, who was briefed on the inquiry and spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case might yet result in a court martial. The deaths would have been prevented, he said, “if we had just slowed things down and thought deliberately.”
When military investigators looked into an attack by American helicopters last February that left 23 Afghan civilians dead, they found that the operator of a Predator drone had failed to pass along crucial information about the makeup of a gathering crowd of villagers.
Data is among the most potent weapons of the 21st century. Unprecedented amounts of raw information help the military determine what targets to hit and what to avoid. And drone-based sensors have given rise to a new class of wired warriors who must filter the information sea. But sometimes they are drowning.
Across the military, the data flow has surged; since the attacks of 9/11, the amount of intelligence gathered by remotely piloted drones and other surveillance technologies has risen 1,600 percent. On the ground, troops increasingly use hand-held devices to communicate, get directions and set bombing coordinates. And the screens in jets can be so packed with data that some pilots call them “drool buckets” because, they say, they can get lost staring into them.
“There is information overload at every level of the military — from the general to the soldier on the ground,” said Art Kramer, a neuroscientist and director of the Beckman Institute, a research lab at the University of Illinois.
On a computer screen, the subjects see a video feed from one drone and the locations of others, along with instructions on where to direct them. The subjects wear a cap with electrodes attached, measuring brain waves. As the number of drones and the pace of instructions increases, the brain shows sharp spikes in a kind of electrical activity called theta — cause for concern among the researchers.
As the technology allows soldiers to pull in more information, it strains their brains. And military researchers say the stress of combat makes matters worse. Some research even suggests that younger people wind up having more trouble focusing because they have grown up constantly switching their attention.