As the amount of data from drones and other surveillance technology has risen 1,600 percent since 9/11, military personnel are becoming overwhelmed and making mistakes.
A recent incident in Afghanistan highlighted this problem, as a drone operator mistakenly attacked a gathering that killed 23 Afghan civilians. The military cited “information overload” as the cause of the mistake and said the incident could’ve been prevented “if we had just slowed things down and thought deliberately.”
The mountains of data have created a new class of wired warrior that sifts through the information sea and, at times, determine what targets to hit and avoid. At Langley Air Force Base’s $5 billion global surveillance network, military personnel review 1,000 hours of video, 1,000 high-altitude spy photos and hundreds of hours of “signals intelligence”, which are usually cellphone calls.
Yet the sheer amount of data that needs to be absorbed and used to make decisions has pushed many soldiers to their mental limit.
“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.
Kramer has been hired by the military to determine the brains limits and potential when it comes to coping with information. He and other researchers have found that having more information provided by technology strains their brains. Some research suggests younger people who have grown up multi-tasking and constantly switching their attention have more trouble focusing. “Multitasking might actually have negative effects,” said Michael Barnes, research psychologist at the Army Research Lab at Aberdeen, Md.
The military is looking at different techniques to help soldiers focus better. At an Army base in Oahu, Hawaii, soldiers undergo “mindfulness-based mind fitness training,” which has soldiers concentrate on a part of their body, like the feeling of a foot then move to another focus, like listening to a bird outside.