But shaping public relations campaigns – and people’s minds - isn’t necessarily the only military application for such research. David Matsumoto, a professor of psychology and director of the Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory at San Francisco State University, is being funded by another Pentagon initiative, called Minerva, to conduct scientific research on the role of emotions in inciting political violence. Matsumoto and his colleagues are studying language and facial expressions used by political leaders to see if those can be used to predict future violence.
“I think that one of the most logical direct applications of this kind of finding and this line of research [is] to develop sensors that can watch, either monitor the words that are being spoken and/or the non-verbal behaviors that are expressive of those emotions,” he says of the Pentagon’s interest in his work. “I think the development of sensors like that ... would be sort of an early warning signal or system [to detect violence].”
Of course, some might question whether the vision of a machine that spits out story lines at the flip of a switch, or provides an early warning “emotion” sensor for war, is blue sky dreaming. But Read Montague, a neuroscientist at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke, Virginia, sees the possibility of technology that could come into play in cases like the Koran-burning protests in Afghanistan.
“I see a device coming that’s going to make suggestions to you, like, a, this situation is getting tense, and, b, here are things you need to do now, I’ll help you as you start talking,” says Montague, who is part of the Darpa Narrative Networks project. “That could be really useful.”
Montague points out that people also once doubted that a computer could beat a chess master, but as technology advanced, computers eventually became good enough that they could out manoeuvre even the best chess players. Of course, the idea of Big Blue-style computer that taps the mind’s biology to generate stories sounds less like a feel-good storytelling machine than a military weapon designed to manipulate people’s mental state. “It’s a weapon,” says Montague, “but it’s a defensive weapon.”