DARPA Developing a ‘Modem’ Linking Computer and Brain
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Modern medicine has brought us quite a bit of amazing things. I, for one, love not dying from infections, from polio or mumps. Not to mention not pooping myself to death when I have a glass of water. These are things that I think we can all agree are Good™. Even with that progress, though, many of humanity’s oldest diseases and disorders are pernicious, but DARPA (yeah, that one) has started looking into some brain-computer interfaces that might do the trick.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is an arm of the US military, so it seems odd that it would develop a system that… y’know… doesn’t kill people. But, lest we not forget that the agency was instrumental in the creation of the internet. Though, to be fair, that was to make it easier to communicate with other bases about the most effective ways to kill people.
Snide comments aside, the Neural Engineering System Design Program will funnel $65 million into a series of research projects that will help bridge the gap between humans and machines. The awards will go to several teams that are working on everything from gifting the blind sight and controlling new cybernetic limbs. Almost every application is benevolent, and many hope to one day help those injured on the battlefield or off.
All of this is lofty, sure, but DARPA’s got a pretty good track record overall. Some projects inevitably get canned, but the agency is on track to a few other smaller brain-computer interface research projects.
If the NESD fares as well, it should have working brain-computer implants within four years. Ideally, it will be able to convert signals directly and reliably between those our brain uses for its electrochemical computer (i.e. neurotransmitters) and the ones and zeroes of computing. If all goes according to plan, DARPA will be able to pack that tech into space about one milliliter in volume.
Paradromics, one of the teams receiving funding, will get $18 million to develop a system of electrodes that record neural activity and then send messages back down. Or, to hear them say it:
“As part of the DARPA NESD Program, [we are] developing the Neural Input–Output Bus, or ‘NIOB,’ which is scheduled for clinical trials in 2021. The NIOB device will act as a cortical modem that will be capable of reading and stimulating brain activity with an effective data rate of > 1 Gbps. Together with [our partners]… we will be providing the NIOB to patients with ALS who have lost the ability to speak, allowing them to communicate fluently through the aid of the implant.”
While it may be meant to help with ALS for now, a “cortical modem” is the first step to being able to jack into the Matrix. And, I dunno about you, but that’s kinda all I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid. But, to get there, they’ll have to overcome some enormous hurdles — including understanding the brain at all in the first place.
It’s a long road, but a worthy one. Here’s hoping that we have some really sweet cybernetic tech a decade down the line.