The U.S. military is working on an implantable chip that could turn soldiers into cyborgs by connecting their brains directly to computers. The brain-machine interface is being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which claims the neural connection will “open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”
It is not the first time DARPA researchers have attempted to build a brain-machine interface, however previous versions have had limited functionality. The agency’s new Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) research program aims to increase brain neuron interaction from tens of thousands to millions at a time.
“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem [from the 1970’s],” 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 announced its intentions of eventually building a chip no larger than one cubic centimeter, or two nickels stacked back to back, that can be implanted in the brain. The chip would act as a neural interface by converting electrochemical signals sent by neurons in the brain into the ones and zeros used in digital communications.
Potential applications include improving a wearer’s hearing or vision by feeding external digital auditory or visual information into the brain. But before this can be done, DARPA said that breakthroughs need to be made in neuroscience, synthetic biology, low-power electronics and medical device manufacturing.
Initial applications of DARPA’s device are likely to be within a military context, though such technologies often filter down to find commercial and civilian applications. The agency is credited for pioneering widespread civil technologies like GPS, speech translation and the internet.
The NESD project forms part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, which aims to cure and treat brain disorders.