US military reveals $65m funding for ‘Matrix’ projects to plug human brains directly into a computer

The goal is 'developing an implantable system able to provide precision communication between the brain and the digital world,' DARPA officials said. Four of the teams will focus on vision and two will focus on aspects of hearing and speech.

The goal is ‘developing an implantable system able to provide precision communication between the brain and the digital world,’ DARPA officials said. Four of the teams will focus on vision and two will focus on aspects of hearing and speech.

By Mark Prigg

  • System could be used to give soldiers ‘supersenses’ and boost brainpower
  • Will also allow radical new treatments for patients with sensory disorders 
  • Four teams will focus on vision and two on aspects of hearing and speech
The US military has revealed $65 of funding for a programme to develop a ‘brain chip’ allowing humans to simply plug into a computer.
They say the system could give soldiers supersenses and even help treat people with blindness, paralysis and speech disorders
The goal is ‘developing an implantable system able to provide precision communication between the brain and the digital world,’ DARPA officials said.
It has selected its five grant recipients for the Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, which it began at the start of this year.
Brown University, Columbia University, The Seeing and Hearing Foundation, the John B. Pierce Laboratory, Paradromics Inc and the University of California, Berkeley will all receive multi-million dollar grants.
‘These organizations have formed teams to develop the fundamental research and component technologies required to pursue the NESD vision of a high-resolution neural interface and integrate them to create and demonstrate working systems able to support potential future therapies for sensory restoration,’ official said.
Four of the teams will focus on vision and two will focus on aspects of hearing and speech.
Brown University team led by Dr. Arto Nurmikko will seek to decode neural processing of speech, focusing on the tone and vocalization aspects of auditory perception.
The team’s proposed interface would be composed of networks of up to 100,000 untethered, submillimeter-sized ‘neurograin’ sensors implanted onto or into the cerebral cortex.
A separate RF unit worn or implanted as a flexible electronic patch would passively power the neurograins and serve as the hub for relaying data to and from an external command center that transcodes and processes neural and digital signals.
Columbia University team led by Dr. Ken Shepard will study vision and aims to develop a non-penetrating bioelectric interface to the visual cortex.
The team envisions layering over the cortex a single, flexible complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) integrated circuit containing an integrated electrode array.
A relay station transceiver worn on the head would wirelessly power and communicate with the implanted device.
Fondation Voir et Entendre team led by Drs. Jose-Alain Sahel and Serge Picaud will study vision.
The team aims to apply techniques from the field of optogenetics to enable communication between neurons in the visual cortex and a camera-based, high-definition artificial retina worn over the eyes, facilitated by a system of implanted electronics and micro-LED optical technology.
John B. Pierce Laboratory team led by Dr. Vincent Pieribone will study vision. The team will pursue an interface system in which modified neurons capable of bioluminescence and responsive to optogenetic stimulation communicate with an all-optical prosthesis for the visual cortex.
Paradromics, Inc., team led by Dr. Matthew Angle aims to create a high-data-rate cortical interface using large arrays of penetrating microwire electrodes for high-resolution recording and stimulation of neurons.
As part of the NESD program, the team will seek to build an implantable device to support speech restoration.
Paradromics’ microwire array technology exploits the reliability of traditional wire electrodes, but by bonding these wires to specialized CMOS electronics the team seeks to overcome the scalability and bandwidth limitations of previous approaches using wire electrodes.
University of California, Berkeley, team led by Dr. Ehud Isacoff aims to develop a novel ‘light field’ holographic microscope that can detect and modulate the activity of up to a million neurons in the cerebral cortex.
The team will attempt to create quantitative encoding models to predict the responses of neurons to external visual and tactile stimuli, and then apply those predictions to structure photo-stimulation patterns that elicit sensory percepts in the visual or somatosensory cortices, where the device could replace lost vision or serve as a brain-machine interface for control of an artificial limb.
The work has the potential to significantly advance scientists’ understanding of the neural underpinnings of vision, hearing, and speech and could eventually lead to new treatments for people living with sensory deficits.
‘The NESD program looks ahead to a future in which advanced neural devices offer improved fidelity, resolution, and precision sensory interface for therapeutic applications,’ said Phillip Alvelda, the founding NESD Program Manager.
‘By increasing the capacity of advanced neural interfaces to engage more than one million neurons in parallel, NESD aims to enable rich two-way communication with the brain at a scale that will help deepen our understanding of that organ’s underlying biology, complexity, and function.
‘A million neurons represents a miniscule percentage of the 86 billion neurons in the human brain.
‘Its deeper complexities are going to remain a mystery for some time to come. But if we’re successful in delivering rich sensory signals directly to the brain, NESD will lay a broad foundation for new neurological therapies. ‘
The program’s first year will focus on making fundamental breakthroughs in hardware, software, and neuroscience, and testing those advances in animals and cultured cells.
Phase II of the program calls for ongoing basic studies, along with progress in miniaturization and integration, with attention to possible pathways to regulatory approval for human safety testing of newly developed devices.
As part of that effort, researchers will cooperate with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin exploration of issues such as long-term safety, privacy, information security, compatibility with other devices, and the numerous other aspects regulators consider as they evaluate potential applications of new technologies.
‘The goal is to achieve this communications link in a biocompatible device no larger than one cubic centimeter in size, roughly the volume of two nickels stacked back to back,’ DARPA has said previously.
Elon Musk’s latest company Neuralink is working to link the human brain with a machine interface by creating micron-sized devices.
Neuralink was registered in California as a ‘medical research’ company last July, and he plans on funding the company mostly by himself.
It will work on what Musk calls the ‘neural lace’ technology, implanting tiny brain electrodes that may one day upload and download thoughts.
In The Matrix, users plugged into a computer using a bulky cable attached to the brain
In The Matrix, users plugged into a computer using a bulky cable attached to the brain
He said ‘neural laces’ will help people with severe brain injuries in just four years.
And in eight to ten years, the Matrix-style technology will be available to everyone, he added.
Neuralink is aiming to launch a product that will help people who suffer from serious brain injuries as a result of disorders such as stroke and cancer in just four years, Musk said.
The program, Neural Engineering System Design (NESD), stands to dramatically enhance research capabilities in neurotechnology and provide a foundation for new therapies.
‘Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,’ said Phillip Alvelda, the NESD program manager.
‘Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.’
Among the program’s potential applications are devices that could compensate for deficits in sight or hearing by feeding digital auditory or visual information into the brain at a resolution and experiential quality far higher than is possible with current technology.
Neural interfaces currently approved for human use squeeze a tremendous amount of information through just 100 channels, with each channel aggregating signals from tens of thousands of neurons at a time.
The result is noisy and imprecise.
In contrast, the NESD program aims to develop systems that can communicate clearly and individually with any of up to one million neurons in a given region of the brain.