COLUMBUS, Ohio (July 28, 2020)—For years, researchers have been exploring the potential for brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) – systems that connect up the human brain to external technology – to restore movement to people with paralysed limbs, using electrode arrays implanted directly on the brain's surface.
In the future, however, US government-backed research could enable the use of BCIs without any surgery at all – and they may first see use as a way of giving soldiers an advantage on the battlefield.
DARPA, the US military's R&D unit, which launched its Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program in 2018, is seeking to create non-invasive or minimally invasive brain-computer interfaces that could allow troops to communicate with systems from aerial vehicles or cyber-defense systems more quickly than they could with voice or keyboards; in short, soldiers could potentially fly drones or drive tanks with their thoughts alone.
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"DARPA is preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone," said Al Emondi, the N3 program manager last year, when funding for six projects was announced: "By creating a more accessible brain-machine interface that doesn't require surgery to use, DARPA could deliver tools that allow mission commanders to remain meaningfully involved in dynamic operations that unfold at rapid speed."
The research agency has awarded funding to six groups under the N3 program, each investigating a different method of enabling humans and machines to communicate at thought-speed but without the need for surgery. The different groups are investigating a range of approaches; ultrasound, magnetic fields, light, electrical fields and optical tomography are among the technologies being researched.
Ohio-based R&D company Battelle is one of six groups to receive DARPA funding for a minimally invasive system that should eventually be able to gather and transmit information to soldiers' brains. "Imagine this: A soldier puts on a helmet and uses his or her thoughts alone to control multiple unmanned vehicles or a bomb disposal robot," as the company explained the project last year.
The aim of the project is "to enhance the capability of our military and our warfighters – to learn faster, do things better," Patrick Ganzer, principal research scientist at Battelle, told ZDNet.
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