Darpa aims to develop a new neural implant "wetware" device that would enable computers to directly communicate with the human brain. The implantable brain-machine interface (BMI) will allow users to operate and control their computers with neural signal commands.
The US military's R&D organisation, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, launched the new programme on 19 January and said it would develop an implantable device capable of translating neurological signals into binary code. The Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) will build the device that would also operate as a translator, converting biochemical signals in neurons to digital code.
NESD programme manager Phillip Alvelda said current brain-computer interface systems appear to belong to a technologically challenged age, comparing the interaction mechanisms to "two supercomputers talking to each other using an old 300-baud modem". He said, "Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics."
Although researchers have attempted something similar in the past, there has been limited success. According to Darpa, current neural interfaces use a maximum of 100 channels, vacuuming immense amounts of data. Since each channel collects neural data from thousands of neurons simultaneously, the resulting interpretation can be "noisy and imprecise".
In order to ensure more clarity and improve the integrative processes, Darpa intends to tap a host of technology and scientific fields in the research project. The Pentagon's research wing said that "integrated breakthroughs across numerous disciplines" like neuroscience, synthetic biology, photonics, systems engineering, clinical testing and medical device packaging will be vital to ensure that the envisaged devices are designed such that their practical applications are not limited to just research fields.
Darpa is hosting a Proposers Day meeting on 2 and 3 February to familiarise research participants with their programme goals. The NESD programme is part of Darpa's broader research unit that supports President Obama's brain enterprise.