The U.S. military is beginning work on a new “implantable neural interface” that it hopes will allow wearers to transmit data back and forth from their brains to external digital devices.
That’s right—a brain modem. One that can connect to a staggering one million neurons at a time, up from the mere thousands that are possible today.
The implications are profound for the armed forces and civilians. Imagine controlling your tank, car or microwave oven with your mind. Or steering a drone with your thoughts and “seeing” what the drone’s sensors see—in real time. Imagine making a hands-free phone call by simply willing it… then talking out loud.
But don’t hold your breath. While the Pentagon’s brain modem is far from science fiction—cochlear implants, for example, represent a very basic form of one-way neural interface—it’s equally far from science fact. And it could be many years or decades before anything resembling the neural implant is even ready for testing. If ever.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the military’s fringe-science wing—announced the “Neural Engineering System Design” initiative on Jan. 19. The NESD program “aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world,” DARPA stated.
“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 military research agency continued. “The goal is to achieve this communications link in a biocompatible device no larger than one cubic centimeter in size.”
DARPA plans to hold a meeting in Virginia in February in order to further explain the brain modem idea and begin the process of awarding grants to universities, independent researchers and private companies. And in advance of awarding the cash, DARPA said it will form an “industry group” of neuroscience experts willing to share ideas for free, all in the hope that a little collaboration will make the subsequent competition more productive in the long run.
The agency anticipates spending $60 million on NESD over the next four years.
But with all this planning and funding, DARPA may have put the programmatic cart before the scientific horse. The agency hasn’t answered some basic questions that could determine whether the brain modem is even possible. A cochlear implant that tickles auditory nerves is one thing. A tiny device that encodes thoughts and senses into useful data is quite another thing.
Bradley Greger, a neuroscientist at Arizona State University, told The Daily Beast he will attend DARPA’s meeting in Virginia and apply for a grant. “It’s an exciting project,” Greger said of NESD, adding that there’s real potential for “fundamental new insights” into how the brain works.
But even Greger acknowledged that the hurdles are high. “The big challenge is you’re talking about interfacing with the human brain—that’s not a trivial thing. It’s a big deal to implant something into the brain.”
There are, Greger pointed out, “ethical and medical considerations.”
“The other big challenge is the management and interpretation of the huge amounts of information you get,” Greger added. “You’d need a Google-level I.T. structure to manage and process it.” Now imagine squeezing all of Google’s servers and algorithms into a device the size of a couple of coins.
For all his reservations, Greger said the brain-modem effort is worth the risk. “DARPA really wants to see how far we can stretch,” he said.
But Daniel Palanker, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, called bullshit on the brain modem scheme. “It sounds like somebody came up with random numbers,” Palanker told The Daily Beast. “Someone throws out a number like a million neurons. But what’s the technology? There is no description of the technology.”
Palanker stressed that there’s a lot of potential for advancements in neuroscience. But DARPA’s way of doing things won’t help, he said. For one, the agency tends to dump a lot of money into a project for a short span of time instead of guaranteeing stable financing like many other funders do. The DARPA model “is not the best way to sustain science,” Palanker said.
And DARPA likes to set lofty, seemingly arbitrary goals—and see what kind of technology results from even failed efforts to reach those goals. But Palanker said the agency’s approach is wasteful. “My efforts are based on what’s possible,” he stressed. Palanker said he will not attend the Virginia confab nor request any of DARPA’s brain-modem money.
To be fair, the military science agency seems to appreciate that the NESD initiative is an ambitious and risky one. “The array of technical hurdles and the resulting number of engineering and other specialties that will be needed to contribute to this effort is part of why the program aims to launch an industry group committed to sharing precompetitive data and resources,” Rick Weiss, the agency’s communications director, told The Daily Beast.
“The technical hurdles are many,” Weiss repeated.