WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Today’s brain machine interfaces are rudimentary or require invasive surgery, this program could bring brain interfaces to the masses and be the next step in human-technological evolution.
Until now the advanced and cutting edge neuroscience programs at DARPA, the self proclaimed mad science wing of the US Department of Defense, have focused on technologies that allow warfighters to upload, download and stream information from their brains, which recently got an additional $50m of funding, and focused on treating soldiers who’ve returned home with body and brain injuries. For example, they’ve funded research on prosthetic limbs that are wired into the nervous system and brain implants that could treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD).
But the way the military fights wars is changing, and so, it seems, must DARPA’s priorities. At a conference last week to celebrate DARPA’s 60th anniversary, officials described the next frontier of neuroscience research, and it’s the stuff of science fiction. They want to “develop technologies for able-bodied soldiers that give them super abilities,” and let them control swarms of drones and fighter jets, like this and this one, military machines, and even conduct cyber war and war games with nothing more than their minds.
“Warfighters need new ways to interface and interoperate with machines,” says Al Emondi, manager of DARPA’s newest neurotech program, “but most of the technologies developed up to this point require surgery. What got us here won’t take us there.”
As a result DARPA’s Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program will “fund research on tech that can transmit high-fidelity signals between the brain and some external machine without requiring that the user be cut open for rewiring or implantation.” The program was originally announced back in March and Emondi is currently hand picking the researchers who will be funded under the program with planned announcements coming in early 2019.
It also hasn’t escaped DARPA’s attention that developing neurotech gear that doesn’t need any form of surgery that give people superpowers may find applications beyond the military either. And it’s thought that the proof of concept products that eventually find their way out of the N3 programs labs might lead to a new revolution in consumer products, says Justin Sanchez, director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office.
“This will spawn new industries,” he says.
The N3 program has two tracks. The first track is for researchers who are developing completely non-invasive technologies, while the second is for those working on “Minutely invasive” technologies. Both those categories require a little explanation.
Looking at the completely non-invasive track first it may seem surprising that DARPA would even bother to focus on this area of research, because there are plenty of non-invasive neurotechnologies already on the market from companies like Halo Neuroscience and others. For example, electrodes are simply placed on the scalp in both Electroencephalogy (EEG), a technique that’s been used to read brain signals of ALS, or “locked in syndrome,” patients in hospitals for many years now, and elsewhere Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), a method of jolting the brain that’s currently being tried as a cure for depression, to train olympians, and just about everything else.
But Sanchez says these existing technologies will never provide precise enough transmission for the applications DARPA envisions. The goal of the N3 program is to create new non-invasive technologies that can match the high performance currently achieved only with implanted electrodes that are nestled in the brain tissue and therefore have a direct interface with neurons, either recording the electrical signals when the neurons “fire” into action or stimulating them to cause that firing.
“The N3 program demands non-invasive tech that can read signals out of and write information into 1 cubic millimeter of brain tissue, and do so within 10 milliseconds.” says Emondi.
Note the wording there – both read and write information to the brain which could also one day help DARPA open the door to real time memory editing as well, a feat that researchers recently achieved in mice.
To get this spatial and temporal resolution despite the barrier of the skull, Emondi says researchers will have to find new ways to detect neural activity.
“When a neuron fires, it changes its reflectivity – can we capture that optical signal?” he asks, “and when it fires it actually emits an acoustic wave – can we capture that as well?”
On the Minutely Invasive front DARPA invented this wording to specifically avoid the term “Minimally Invasive,” which in medicine typically means laparoscopic surgery. DARPA doesn’t want its new brain tech to require even a tiny incision. Instead, minutely invasive tech might come into the body in the form of an injection, like a smart pill, a nasal spray or even via a new category of so called injectable electronics that I’ve discussed before.
Emondi imagines “Nanotransducers” that can sit inside neurons, converting the electrical signal when it fires into some other type of signal that can be picked up through the skull.
By the end of the 4 year long program DARPA expects all the researchers involved to be ready to demo their tech with a “defense-relevant task.” For example, a demonstrator might use brain signals to pilot a drone or to control a fighter jet in a simulator in the same way a paralysed woman, Jan Scheuermann, did using brain implants in 2015.
Asked about killer apps for this tech, Emondi says he also likes the idea of using this tech in “active cyber defense,” in which the tech could allow security specialists to actually feel an intrusion.
“Instead of being on the network, you’d be in the the network,” he says, something that even I find interesting and crazy so I’ll be keeping an eye open for more information on that as it arrives.
In the early stages anything developed in the N3 program will be just a proof of concept and would require regulatory approval before it could be widely used by warfighters, or by the general public. But with some of Silicon Valley’s biggest players also working on neurotech, such as Facebook where Mark Zuckerberg wants to turn the platform into the world’s first telepathic social network, and Elon Musk via his Neuralink business, it seems likely that it’s a matter of when consumer brain gear arrives and not when, and DARPA’s Sanchez says that making brain tech easy to use will open the floodgates.
“We can imagine a future of how this tech will be used, and this [research] will let millions of people imagine their own futures,” he says. “What do you want to do with your brain?”
It’s an interesting question, with crazy possibilities and potential that could range from uploading information to your brain matrix style, like was achieved recently, or letting you control animals, like this living cyborg dragonfly, or spaceships as they ferry people between Earth and Mars. The only limitation is your imagination…