The U.S. military is spending millions for an implant that will open doors to direct communications between a human brain and computers.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Pentagon’s research team, said the implant will hopefully pave way for humans to interact with computers. This, the agency said, could help people suffering from aural and visual disabilities.
Through the program, called the Neural Engineering System Design (NESD), the agency looks to enhance research capabilities in neurotechnology. Phillip Alvelda, the NESD program manager, said, “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.”
According to the DARPA website, the interface “would serve as a translator, converting between the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology. The goal is to achieve this communications link in a biocompatible device no larger than one cubic centimeter in size, roughly the volume of two nickels stacked back to back.”
DARPA announced in January that a budget of $62 million is planned for the project. The size of the implant would roughly be equivalent to two stacked nickels, DARPA said.
According to Conor Walsh, a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Harvard University, the implant would “change the game” and that, in the future, “wearable robotic devices will be controlled by implants.” Walsh said that exoskeletons, or wearable robotic devices, could prove to be hugely beneficial in, for example, helping a person suffering from stroke or magnifying capabilities of soldiers in combat.
A battery-powered exoskeleton – the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, one that will help offer more protection in combat and helmet technologies enhancing communications ability and vision – is being developed by the U.S. military. As reported by CNN, the development of the exoskeleton is being overseen by U.S. Special Operations Command.
The idea of the implant hasn’t impressed everyone, though. Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Harvard, expressed his skepticism, saying that the idea is a “bunch of hype with no results.”
“We have little to no idea how exactly the brain codes complex information,” he said. He cited how foreign objects could cause brain inflammation and also lead to neurological problems. While he referred to “neural enhancement” for healthy brains as “boondoggle,” he said that those suffering from brain-related diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, could be benefited.