The US Department of Defense agency, DARPA, is funding development of high-resolution 'brain interfaces' that could be used to create soldiers with augmented abilities , it has been revealed.
Until now, the neuroscience programs at DARPA have focused on technologies for solders who have returned home with disabilities of the body or brain. For example, research on prosthetic limbs that are wired into the nervous system and brain implants that could treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, at a conference celebrating DARPA's 60th anniversary, officials discussed the agency's brain research, which it described as the "next frontier" of neuroscience research: technology that can give soldiers 'super' abilities.
Warfighters need new ways to interface and inter-operate with machines
DARPA's previous state-of-the-art brain-system communications have employed invasive techniques that enable connections to specific neurons or groups of neurons. These techniques have helped patients with brain injuries and other conditions. However, these techniques are not appropriate for able-bodied people.
"Warfighters need new ways to interface and inter-operate with machines," said 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."
DARPA created N3 to pursue a path to a safe, portable neural interface system capable of reading from and writing to multiple points in the brain
DARPA is therefore looking to achieve higher levels of brain-system communications without surgery in its new program, called Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3).
"DARPA created N3 to pursue a path to a safe, portable neural interface system capable of reading from and writing to multiple points in the brain at once," explained Emondi.
"High-resolution, non-surgical neuro-technology has been elusive, but thanks to recent advances in biomedical engineering, neuroscience, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology, we now believe the goal is attainable."
We're asking multi-disciplinary teams of researchers to construct approaches that enable precise interaction with very small areas of the brain
These innovations include non-invasive neuro-technologies, such as the electroencephalogram and transcranial direct current stimulation, offering more precision, signal resolution and portability for advanced applications by people working in real-world settings.
"We're asking multi-disciplinary teams of researchers to construct approaches that enable precise interaction with very small areas of the brain, without sacrificing signal resolution or introducing unacceptable latency into the N3 system," Emondi said.
"The only technologies that will be considered in N3 must have a viable path toward eventual use in healthy human subjects."
DARPA intends the four-year N3 effort to conclude with a demonstration of a bi-directional system used in a defence-relevant task that could include human-machine interactions with unmanned aerial vehicles, active cyber defense systems, or other properly instrumented Department of Defense systems.
If we put the best scientists on this problem, we will disrupt current neural interface approaches and open the door to practical, high-performance interfaces
If successful, the N3 technology could help benefit human-machine interaction, such as partnering humans with computer systems to keep pace with the anticipated speed and complexity of future military missions.
"Smart systems will significantly impact how our troops operate in the future, and now is the time to be thinking about what human-machine teaming will actually look like and how it might be accomplished," added Emondi.
"If we put the best scientists on this problem, we will disrupt current neural interface approaches and open the door to practical, high-performance interfaces."
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