DARPA Looking to Bridge Brain-Computer Gap

brain-619-316The list of “technopaths,” humans who can communicate with machines just using their minds is huge in comics and science fiction, as is the list of novels where brain-networked soldiers are a commonplace element in the universe.

Currently, there are many companies looking to put control of technology in our heads, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has now thrown its hat into the ring. In a big way.

Looking to invest over $60 million over the next four years into the technology, DARPA is seeking to develop an implantable neural interface that will allow “unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world.”

Called Neural Engineering System Design (NESD), the program is looking to develop and provide foundational capabilities in neurotechnology that would allow the user to convert the electrochemical language of neurons into digital signals used by technology. Additionally, the program could lead to new therapies and uses such as providing auditory and visual information directly to the brain, rather than through intermediary devices.

Currently, brain-technology interfaces utilize roughly 100 channels at a time, with each channel pulling together information from thousands of neurons, but NESD seeks to develop systems that can communicate individually with up to one million neurons in the brain.

“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” said Phillip Alvelda, the NESD program manager. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”

The bio-compatible interface should be no larger than one cubic centimeter in size. And yeah, it will go into your head.

The idea of soldiers wired together in a network – and humans being able to communicate with technology using their minds – is a familiar one for science fiction, and to get there, DARPA says there will have to be breakthroughs in many disciplines including neuroscience, synthetic biology, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, and clinical testing. In addition, software will have to be developed that can transcode information between hardware and the brain (“wetware” of science fiction) as the user is experiencing sensory information – all without a loss of fidelity or a lag in processing.

Ex Machina by Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris
Ex Machina by Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris

To push NESD into reality, DARPA is looking to pull in a “diverse roster of leading industry stakeholders willing to offer state-of-the-art prototyping and manufacturing services and intellectual property to NESD researchers on a pre-competitive basis.” Think of “government-funded think tanks” from comics and sci-fi movies, tv and novels. The developers may later be able to commercialize the technologies that are developed at a later date.

As with all “big picture” research, much of what will be interesting about NESD will be the side projects and component technology that will be created along the way.

The program is part of President Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. For other DARPA projects that fall under the initiative, check out DARPA’s website here.

Curious about the insides or a government program like this? Check out DARPA’s original press release here, and an agency announcement of the capabilities sought for NESD here.