File photo: The condition results in the disintegration of brain tissue due to an enzyme deficiency, which eventually leads to the build-up of toxic levels of sulphite in the body.

It’s here – and, of course, it’s another computer program. But this one detects brain strain before you make what could be a fatal or costly mistake.

Nancy S is ready for work. Showered and dressed, she takes her coffee and toast to her home computer and clicks onto Facebook.

While it’s sorting out her regular contacts and their prompts and prods, she checks her smart phone for traffic SMSes and missed calls.

All done, she heads off to work. She turns on the car radio to catch any traffic warnings.

Safely at the office, Nancy logs on to the bank’s master computer and begins work, processing endless on-screen transactions. She takes a coffee break and opens her new smart phone for a quick visit to Facebook and her personal e-mail.

After lunch and some more personal contact with e-friends, it’s back to the work screen which carries the word GREEN – in green, of course, in the top-left corner.

The screen also has a tiny camera lens observing its user and a voice communicator which, at regular intervals, says: “Security check – identity please.” To which Nancy replies: “Nancy S. Continue.”

At 3.32pm she is about to make a mistake which will cost the bank half a day’s work each for four people to correct when her screen suddenly deletes “GREEN” and flashes a red warning: “STOP! REVISE!”

Nancy is suffering from brain strain. Cognitive overload involves levels of stress that enfeeble concentration and judgment, creating conditions ripe for mistakes.

And for an operative air traffic controller or a city’s ambulance emergency system even small mistakes can cost hundreds of lives.

A protracted session of cognitive overload can also result in “reactive psychosis”, a form of temporary insanity.

Doctors in the US have begun prescribing variations on “a month of Twitter and Facebook silence” to sufferers of extreme overload from an internet that has become portable, social, accelerated and all-pervasive.

In less than a generation, Americans – the most extreme screen starers – have accepted continuous internet connection as a normality.

But, says Professor Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “That is not the same as saying that this new normality is healthy or sustainable technology. Or, to paraphrase the old line about alcohol: becoming both the cause and the solution to life’s problems.”

Australian scientists have now perfected a device that identifies the early onset of cognitive overload. This can ensure that we don’t pass the point that can lead towards psychosis without being warned.

It can also prevent unauthorised use of computers, not by passwords that can get lost or stolen but by image and voice detection.

And beyond operative detection, this program can detect the tiny visual and aural differences humans can’t pick up, but which can warn of crucial tiredness, loss of concentration and vulnerability to error.

The system is already being used in Canada to protect Ottawa’s ambulance service and in New South Wales to prevent traffic jams.

Australian defence services are using it to assess mental strain on people during flight operations. Call centres are adopting it for supervisors to intervene in call problems beyond the operator’s experience or knowledge.

Air traffic control systems are testing the system in operational conditions and it is favourably regarded as a new future universal addition to air travel safety.

Developed at the National Information and Communications Technology Research Centre in Sydney, the technology is being marketed by BrainGauge.

This week the Australian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed BrainGauge’s managing director, Bruce Whitby.

He said the new technology was an answer to increasing information loads in society.

“I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of humans to detect cognitive load, especially trained people such as psychologists,” said Whitby.

“At a simple level we can detect ‘ahs’ and ‘ums’ and delays in speech but the computer can be trained to pick up these and a lot more. And, once programmed, it will pick up very fine changes really early, long before a human can detect them,” he said.

Cognitive overload reflects a person’s ability to think, reason, operate and remember clearly and accurately. When performing a task we are doing many things simultaneously. We are accepting inputs from listening, watching and touching. At the same time we are thinking and reasoning to make sense of them.

And we are usually controlling something: driving a car, moving a mouse around and talking.

But we only have a finite amount of working memory and processing power to make the best of this juggling act with everything we are receiving and doing. If input increases we start running out of working memory.

Then, physiologically, a number of things start happening. First, we stop accepting more information or we start processing some information exclusively. We start feeling stressed and emotional.

And when we start to feel stressed and emotional we begin making mistakes.

“But from BrainGauge’s perspective, it affects our muscle control. And muscle control affects speech. We are now able to pick up these changes early enough to predict cognitive overload and its potential for failure in urgent circumstances and to warn and summon help,” said Whitby.

- Sunday Tribune