DARPA wants soldiers to control systems directly with their brains

The Nonsurgical Future of Brain-Machine Interfaces
The Nonsurgical Future of Brain-Machine Interfaces

Now, it seems the US military will soon have access to technology that would allow soldiers to control systems not through a typical computer interface but instead via direct communication with their brains.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a US agency has selected six multidisciplinary teams to develop wearable neural interfaces as part of a project to link the human brain to military equipment.

DARPA’s Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program was first announced in March 2018. It aims to provide wearable brain-machine interface designed to let US military personnel control anything such as active cyber defense systems and swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles.

This brain-machine interface will match the performance of the implanted electrodes but with no surgery at all. It will be in the form of a headset. While the tech sounds futuristic, DARPA wants to get it done in four years.

Battelle Memorial Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Rice University, and Teledyne Scientific will separately lead groups of developers under DARPA’s N3 program.

It announced funding for six teams – CMU will bank $19.48m, Rice is set to receive $18m, Battelle, a science and tech company, will get $20m, and so on.

It’s an aggressive timeline,” says Krishnan Thyagarajan, a research scientist at PARC and principal investigator of one of the N3-funded projects. “But I think the idea of any such program is to really challenge the community to push the limits and accelerate things which are already brewing. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s not impossible.”

The agency is hoping such an interface could make it easier for service members to carry out complex tasks and help them multitask as well.

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,” said program manager Al Emondi in the press release.

The research is split between two tracks. Teams are pursuing either completely non-invasive interfaces that are entirely external to the body or minutely invasive interface systems that include nano-transducers that can be temporarily and nonsurgically delivered to the brain to improve signal resolution.

The four-year N3 program will consist of three phases. In the first phase, the teams have one year to demonstrate the ability to read (record) and write to (stimulate) brain tissue through the skull. Teams that succeed will move to the next phase where those groups will have to develop working devices and test them on living animals. And the left standing will go to the third phase- testing their device on humans.

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,” said Al Emondi.

During the program, federal regulators and independent legal and ethical experts will assist each team in the development of their concepts.