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App Captures the Boston Bombing’s Psychological Effects

Could psychological-monitoring apps become as common as fitness and activity gadgets?

3 min read
App Captures the Boston Bombing’s Psychological Effects
A Mind Minder: Cogito's mood-monitoring app can detect signals of psychological distress
Image: Cogito

In April, the software company Cogito was halfway through a clinical trial to see if it could detect symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through a smartphone app. All of the 100 participants in the study lived around Boston. Then, on 15 April, two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds. Suddenly, Cogito’s clinical trial was a lot more relevant.

The trial was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under its Detection and Computational Analysis of Psychological Signals program. To address the troubling number of psychological problems and suicides among active-duty military personnel and veterans, the U.S. Department of Defense is seeking technologies that can identify at-risk individuals so professionals can help them.

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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