by Jack Corrigan
DARPA is a
hotbed of Technocrats who are dedicated to pushing
science beyond even science fiction to solve all
interface it envisions will work in both directions,
meaning that control over the soldiers' own brain is
Department's research arm
is working on a
to the systems
- and vice
Wants to Bring Mind-Controlled Tech to Troops
The idea of humans controlling machines with their minds has spun
off sci-fi blockbusters like "Pacific
Rim" and entire subgenres of foreign film, but while
today skyscraper-sized fighting robots exist only on the big screen,
the Pentagon is building technology that could one day make them a
Today, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
is selecting teams to develop a "neural interface" that would both
allow troops to connect to military systems using their brainwaves
and let those systems transmit back information directly to users'
The Next-Generation Non-Surgical Neurotechnology, or
N3 program, aims to combine the
speed and processing power of computers with humans' ability to
adapt to complex situations, DARPA said.
In other words, the
technology would let people control, feel and interact with a remote
machine as though it were a part of their own body.
"From the first time
a human carved a rock into a blade or formed a spear, humans
have been creating tools to help them interact with the world
around them," said Al Emondi, the program manager at DARPA's
Biological Technologies Office.
"The tools we use
have grown more sophisticated over time… but these still require
some form of physical control interface - touch, motion or
interfaces promise is a richer, more powerful and more natural
experience in which our brains effectively become the tool."
DARPA began studying
interactions between humans and machines in the 1960s, and while
technology that merges the two may sound far-fetched, the
organization already proved it's possible.
Revolutionizing Prosthetics program,
DARPA created a prosthetic limb that disabled veterans can control
using an electrode implanted in their brain.
The system gives users
"near-natural" arm and hand motion while transmitting signals that
a sense of touch back to their
Now the agency wants to create a similar apparatus for able-bodied
service men and women that doesn't require surgical implants.
The N3 program is divided into two tracks:
interfaces that sit completely outside the body
interfaces that could require users to ingest different
chemical compounds to help external sensors read their brain
In both tracks,
technologies must be "bidirectional," meaning they can read brain
activity and also write new information back to the user.
While those capabilities might fuel conspiracy theories about
government mind-reading and mind-control, Al Emondi told us
that won't be the case:
scientists are only
beginning to figure out how the brain's 100 billion neurons
interact, so controlling those interactions is next to
Instead, he said it's
better to think of N3 technology as means to use to a computer or
smartphone without a mouse, keyboard or touch screen.
The program is solely focused on designing an interface for humans
to connect with technology, not the technology itself, but according
to Emondi, the use cases will likely be more high stakes than
controlling prosthetic limbs.
He theorized the interface could be used to help a pilot coordinate
a fleet of drones with their thoughts or troops to control a
remotely deployed robot by using their brain's motor signals.
He added cybersecurity
specialists could even connect to the system to monitor different
parts of a computer network with their physical bodies.
Depending on how the interface is designed, that specialist might
"hear" a cyberattack when it happens or "feel" it in the part of
their body that corresponds to a section of the network. Stimulating
different neurons create different sensations in the body, said
Emondi, and participating teams must decide how their device will
transmit signals back to the brain.
Given the intensely personal nature of the technology, DARPA is
requiring designs to comply with a number of health and safety
requirements, and also address any potential cybersecurity concerns.
While today the project's
biggest ethical questions relate to safety and risk of testing,
"if N3 is
successful," Emondi said, "I anticipate we could face questions
related to agency, autonomy and the experience of information
being communicated to a user."
"We don't think about
N3 technology as simply a new way to fly a plane or to talk to a
computer, but as tool for actual
human-machine teaming," Emondi
"As we approach a
future in which increasingly autonomous systems will play a
greater role in
military operations, neural
interface technology can help war-fighters build a more
intuitive interaction with these systems."
Participating teams will
have four years to create a working neural interface.
DARPA declined to comment
on the project's funding levels...