Brain-computer interfaces have long been a common source of science fiction writing and movies, often involving stories where software could take over a person’s life, as in “Total Recall,” or has already taken over the world, as in “The Matrix.” Such interfaces do exist in the real world, and while some recently announced plans might seem to encroach on science fiction’s turf, their current and near-term applications are more practical, if nevertheless technically impressive.
The Defense Department (DoD) is leading the charge within government, recently investing $65 million across six projects. Each of these projects will work to develop high-resolution neural interfaces and working systems that could help in sensory restoration, specifically in these projects with regard to sight and speech. The contractors–five research organizations and one private company–will work under the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA) Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, which was launched in 2016 with the goal of developing an implantable neural interface able to deliver high-bandwidth data transfers between the brain and electronics systems.
Four of the contracts–awarded to teams from Columbia University, John B. Pierce Laboratory, the Paris-based Fondation Voir et Entendre (Seeing and Hearing Foundation), and the University of California, Berkeley–will conduct research related to vision. Possible outcomes include being able to restore lost vision through a prosthetic retina, or through a “light field” holographic microscope that could modulate up to a million neurons in the cerebral cortex to replace lost vision or serve as a brain-machine interface for manipulating an artificial limb, DARPA said. Two other teams, from Brown University and Paradromics, will investigate possibly restoring speech via brain interfaces.
“The NESD program looks ahead to a future in which advanced neural devices offer improved fidelity, resolution, and precision sensory interface for therapeutic applications,” said Phillip Alvelda, the founding program manager for NESD. “By increasing the capacity of advanced neural interfaces to engage more than 1 million neurons in parallel, NESD aims to enable rich two-way communication with the brain at a scale that will help deepen our understanding of that organ’s underlying biology, complexity, and function.”
NESD builds on previous research into brain-computer interfaces, which primarily has been focused on medical applications. The first brain-computer interface dates to 1924, when German psychiatrist Hans Berger recorded brain activity by means of the electroencephalogram (EEG), a breakthrough that made it possible to detect brain diseases. Since then, much of the research by DoD, the National Institutes of Health, and others has often focused on medicine in areas like improved prosthetics and helping stroke victims. (Along the sci-fi theme, the original Star Trek series included a 1966 two-part episode in which former Enterprise commander Christopher Pike, physically immobilized but mentally aware, was able to signal yes-or-no answers via his brainwaves.)
DoD also sees areas such as battlefield communications and human-machine teaming as possible extensions, and eventually brain-computer research could result in many other applications as well. In the private sector, Elon Musk notably is backing a nascent venture called Neuralink, reportedly to develop implants that will allow human thought and software to merge, and Facebook has said its working on thought-to-text.
Although some experts have doubts that brain-computer interfaces will give people cognitive superpowers any time soon, the research does hold promise, especially in the medical field. In fact, Musk, who hopes such interfaces will help protect humans against the encroaching dominance of artificial intelligence, has said the Neuralink’s initial focus will be on medical problems.
“Significant technical challenges lie ahead, but the teams we assembled have formulated feasible plans to deliver coordinated breakthroughs across a range of disciplines and integrate those efforts into end-to-end systems,” DARPA’s Alvelda said.