DARPA, the US military's boffinry nerve center, is trying to fulfill the science-fiction dream of developing non-surgical brain-machine interfaces so soldiers can comfortably control weapon systems with their minds.
On Tuesday, it announced funding for six teams at the Battelle Memorial Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University, Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Rice University, and Teledyne Scientific in America to build these types of devices under the aegis of its Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) project.
It's a decent enough chunk of change: CMU will bank $19.48m, Rice is set to receive $18m, Battelle, a science and tech company, will get $20m, and so on. We understand the payments will be dished out over the next four years as the teams progress.
“DARPA is preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone,” said Al Emondi, the program manager of the N3 project.
“By creating a more accessible brain-machine interface that doesn’t require surgery to use, DARPA could deliver tools that allow mission commanders to remain meaningfully involved in dynamic operations that unfold at rapid speed.”
I can see clearly now the brain is flashed
For example, Rice University is working on a system that will hopefully allow a blind person to see using the eyes of someone sighted, by reading the sighted person's brainwaves as they look around, and wirelessly stimulating neurons in the blind subject's brain to project the sighted person's view into their mind. It's hoped that, eventually, boffins will be able to transfer electrical signals between two brains within 50 milliseconds – faster than a blink of the eye. These experiments could, therefore, pave the way for technology that allows soldiers to control weapons or use surveillance drones using just their gray matter.
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Two different areas will be explored: interfaces that are minimally invasive, and those that are completely non-invasive. A non-invasive approach would be, for instance, skull-cap-like wearable devices that can be easily attached and detached from the head. A minimally invasive method, meanwhile, would be one that has to enter the body through the veins, nasal passages, or stomach to work.
Electrode implants have already yielded some positive results. Amputees can control prosthetic arms using surgically implanted nerve sensors and regular zaps to the brain can improve mood disorders like depression or help ameliorate health issues like Parkinson's. However, having to insert sensors inside the skull is unappealing to users, the hardware is fiddly and cumbersome, and the health risks largely unknown.
DARPA wants the military’s “primarily able-bodied population” to use this forthcoming non-invasive technology. It envisions soldiers using these devices to do things like control swarms of drones, or tap into multiple computer systems with their thoughts.
The neurotechnology relies on being able to stimulate and sense electrical signals in the brain. These are signals decoded into commands by algorithms, and the commands are used to control machines. Information has to be relayed back to the soldier by sending sensory feedback to the brain. DARPA calls this bi-directional brain-machine interfaces, and everything from ultrasound and magnetic waves to tiny nanosensors are being considered.
“If N3 is successful, we’ll end up with wearable neural interface systems that can communicate with the brain from a range of just a few millimeters, moving neurotechnology beyond the clinic and into practical use for national security,” Emondi said.
“Just as service members put on protective and tactical gear in preparation for a mission, in the future they might put on a headset containing a neural interface, use the technology however it’s needed, then put the tool aside when the mission is complete.” ®