Neural implants have long been a science fiction staple. A (more or less) permanent implant that allows a person to directly interface with digital information, neural implants have been used by authors to provide a method of pseudo-telepathy, a kill switch, and even as a way to instantaneously learn Kung Fu.
As much as the CIA has a place in popular media as a shadowy boogeyman, DARPA deserves an equivalent place as the home of mad scientists on government payroll. DARPA is a government agency that isn’t talked about much, but is truly one of the most interesting agencies. DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has the job of anticipating ways technology and science could be used by foreign enemies to gain a tactical advantage – and doing it first. Even though this sounds like the setup for a comic book, the agency is all too real – complete with a public facing web site.
That’s not to say that DARPA scientists haven’t been engaged in research in topics that many consider the domain of comic books. In fact, a moderately popular topic last year was the military developing a “real life Iron Man suit”. While not always named in the articles, as you can easily guess, this is referencing DARPA sponsored research. Is it any surprise that DARPA is now heavily investing in neural implants?
Neural Engineering System Design (NESD)
NESD is a new DARPA program designed to create neural implants able to provide a useful connection between the human brain and digital information. Aimed at creating a translator capable of converting between the electrochemical language of neurons and the binary language of computer, NESD is hoped to create a device about one cubic centimeter in size – about the volume of two nickles stacked together.
At the moment, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are in their infancy. With expensive, invasive tools, we can enable a disabled person to move a computer mouse with their mind. While this is laudable, the heavy wiring involved makes this impractical. Phillip Alveda, the head of the NESD project puts it like this, “Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem. Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”
Potential uses of this technology in the short term include helping the blind and deaf by feeding information directly to the brain. Longer term applications could advance the current work of BCIs and enable a fully paralyzed person to control a suit capable of moving their body, with their mind.
While DARPA might have appear like an organization of villains out of a comic book, having DARPA involved in a project like this is truly for the better. Their unique funding and track record of bringing similar moon shots to fruition (such as their work with Boston Dynamics on a four legged robot that can move faster than humans and navigate heavily rocky terrain) give hope to those who want to help the disabled. Over four years, DARPA intends on investing up to $60 million dollars. The fact that they have no stockholders to answer to means they can take shots like this.
What do you think? Is having an arm of the military involved in BCIs and neural implants a good thing? Let us know in the comments.