May 24, 2019 09:49 AM EDT
The Department of Defense's research unit, the DARPA, is paying scientists to invent and discover ways to read the minds of the soldiers using tools like genetic engineering of the human brain, infrared beams and nanotechnology. Their goal is to create thought-controlled weapons, like drones that someone can send to the skies with just the power of their minds or the ability to beam images from one human brain to another.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA announced that six teams will receive funding for this research under the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology, or N3 program. Those who will participate are tasked with developing technology that will give a two-way channel for fast and seamless communication between machines and the human brain without the need for surgery.
"Imagine someone who's operating a drone or someone who might be analyzing a lot of data," said Jacob Robinson, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University, who is leading one of the teams.
"There's this latency, where if I want to communicate with my machine, I have to send a signal from my brain to move my fingers or move my mouth to make a verbal command, and this limits the speed at which I can interact with either a cyber system or physical system. So the thought is maybe we could improve that speed of interaction."
This could be crucial since machines and a wave of data can overwhelm humans and it could find applications to both civilian and military domains. While there has been progress in our ability to read and write information to the brain, these advances have relied on brain implants in patients, allowing physicians to check and monitor conditions such as epilepsy.
Brain surgery is too risky and current external brain-monitoring approaches like EEG or electroencephalography are too inaccurate. DARPA is trying to create a breakthrough in minimally invasive or noninvasive brain computer interfaces.
DARPA is interested in systems that can write and read to 16 independent locations in a chunk of brain with a lag of no more than 50 milliseconds within four years.
"When you try to capture brain activity through the skull, it's hard to know where the signals are coming from and when and where the signals are being generated," he told Live Science. "So the big challenge is, can we push the absolute limits of our resolution, both in space and time?"
To do this, Robinson's team plants to use viruses that are modified to give genetic material into cells to insert DNA into specific neurons that will make them create two kinds of proteins.
"Being able to decode or encode sensory experiences is something we understand relatively well," Robinson said. "At the bleeding edge of science, I think we are there if we had the technology to do it."
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