In something out of a plot from the latest blockbuster sci-fi movie, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on a project that connects the minds of troops to military technologies. The project known as the “Next-Generation Non-Surgical Neurotechnology” or N3 program aims to develop military technology that is controlled by human brainwaves and can feed information back into users’ brains.
The concept is to merge the speed and processing power of super-computers with humans’ ability to adapt to complex situations through a connected neural interface. Or as Nextgov described it, “In other words, the technology would let people control, feel and interact with a remote machine as though it were a part of their own body.”
“From the first time a human carved a rock into a blade or formed a spear, humans have been creating tools to help them interact with the world around them,” said Al Emondi, the program manager at DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office. “The tools we use have grown more sophisticated over time … but these still require some form of physical control interface—touch, motion or voice. What neural interfaces promise is a richer, more powerful and more natural experience in which our brains effectively become the tool.”
Two Models in Development for Mind-Controlled Tech
The N3 program is to be developed in two ways. There is the non-invasive model where the technology system is entirely external to the individual user, and there is the “minutely invasive” model where soldiers might ingest substances that enable external technologies to read their brain activity. In both instances, the technology will be “bidirectional,” meaning it can read brainwaves and also relay information back to the user.
Emondi told Nextgov that the technology could be used to pilot a fleet of drones or military personnel could control a “remotely deployed robot.” He also said cybersecurity specialists could monitor a network with their physical bodies and “hear” a cyber attack or “feel” it in their body.
“We don’t think about N3 technology as simply a new way to fly a plane or to talk to a computer, but as a tool for actual human-machine teaming,” said Emondi. “As we approach a future in which increasingly autonomous systems will play a greater role in military operations, neural interface technology can help warfighters build a more intuitive interaction with these systems.”
While users will be able to experience a touch, motion or voice sensation with the tech interface depending on how it is designed, Emondi told Nextgov the brain is simply too complex for any kind of mind-control technology. Figuring out how to control the nearly 100 billion neurons is “next to impossible.”
Is developing the N3 technology possible?
DARPA has been studying human-computer interaction since the 1960’s and has already successfully developed the technology for disabled veterans.
According to Nextgov, DARPA has a Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, which created prosthetic limbs for disabled veterans that are controlled via electrodes implanted in their brains. The prosthetic limbs transmit signals back to the brain and relay a sense of touch, which results in a “near natural” arm and hand motion.
In 2014, DARPA successfully connected one woman’s brain to a flight simulator. Jan Sheuermann is a quadriplegic, meaning she can’t move her arms or legs, but Sheuermann was able to pilot a military jet in a flight simulator by only using her brain and DARPA technology.
While DARPA refused to disclose their funding levels, they did reveal that participating teams have four years to create a working neural interface.