DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is working on a brain implant that can give the human brain immediate access to the digital world.
As part of DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, implantable neural interfaces will also serve as translators that convert the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain into the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology.
“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” said NESD program manager, Phillip Alvelda. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”
DARPA imagine the implant will be used to inject sounds and images into the brain, but the immediate aim of the scheme is to provide unprecedented signals and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world.
To make this a reality, DARPA aims to recruit leading figures from disciplines such as neuroscience, synthetic biology, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, and clinical testing.
DARPA does already have some experience of inserting implants into human brains.
Last year, it was reported that the defence agency had started implanting computer chips into soldiers’ brain tissue, on their return from campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, to help regulate the nervous system and to alleviate symptoms of a variety of conditions from post-traumatic stress disorder to arthritis.
However, current brain implants try to squeeze lots of information through a small number of channels, with each channel aggregating signals from tens of thousands of neurons at a time. The result is noisy and imprecise.
In contrast, the NESD program aims to develop systems that can communicate clearly and individually with any of up to one million neurons in a given region of the brain.