From the dawn of electronics, people have been trying to merge electronics with our bodies in order to improve conditions that currently have no cure and to go beyond our limits. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is now ready to back that up with big bucks.
DARPA has announced it plans to spend $65 million to create a brain-computer interface, the core goal of the Neural Engineering System Design program. The program will last for four years and will fund six different research teams. These scientists will work on LEDs that can be used to restore vision, a system to understand speech, and a holographic microscope to detect neural activity.
While these are all part of an exciting plan, it is important to remember just how ambitious it is. Even if the technology developed is as successful as one might hope, it would take years to perform clinical tests to guarantee that the tech is safe and reliable. DARPA wants the team to create commercially viable applications, but there are many obstacles to overcome.
The general idea is to create different versions of the same basic technology, an interface that can translate the electrochemical signals into electronic impulses and vice versa. Only in such a manner would it be possible to control potential sensory devices.
The researchers will try to create a brain implant that is at most a cubic centimeter (about two nickels stuck back to back) in volume. The volume requirements are sensible but not groundbreaking. Previous studies have shown implants that are minimally invasive.
The chip will have to be able to connect and communicate with up to a million neurons, and while that sounds impressive, we need to remember that the average human has about 86 billion of them.
Still, a technology that can interface with our neural electrochemistry can have a huge impact, even if it only interacts with a (relatively) tiny fraction of neurons. The implant can help bridge nerve connections, which means it might help people that have lost limb function or have a spinal injury.
Obviously, this is early work, but it is promising that research groups are committed to a tech that might make life easier for millions of people.