For many years, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under the U.S. Department of defense has been studying how to provide technical solutions for soldiers with physical or brain disabilities. In this regard, DARPA has funded many related research projects, such as prosthetics that can connect with the nervous system, and brain implants that can treat post creative stress disorder.

With the gradual change of the combat mode of the army, the research direction of DARPA has also been adjusted accordingly. At the recent celebration of the 60th anniversary of DARPA, a spokesman described the next direction of neuroscience research, that is, to provide “super power” technology for healthy soldiers.

“Soldiers need new ways to connect and interoperate with machines. But so far, most technologies need to be implemented surgically. We hope to find new ways to implement them,” said Al emondi, the latest director of DARPA’s neural program

It is reported that the next generation of non surgical nerve plan (N3) focuses on exploring the transmission of high fidelity signals between the brain and external machines without wiring or implantation of the human body. The plan was announced in March this year, and emondi is currently selecting researchers who meet the funding requirements of the plan. In an interview, he said that the selection results are expected to be officially announced in early 2019.

Justin Sanchez, director of DARPA biotechnology office, said that the proof of concept technology brought by N3 plan is also expected to appear in the form of consumer goods. “This will give birth to new industries,” he said

At present, the research directions of N3 plan are mainly two: first, develop and research technologies that do not need implantation at all; Second, develop “micro intrusion” technology.

The following is an explanation of these two types of technologies:

Completely non intrusive Technology

In fact, in addition to DARPA, there are already a large number of non-invasive neural technologies. For example, simply rotating a computer on the scalp to draw an EEG has been used for decades to read brain signals, or to treat depression or improve motor ability through cranial DC stimulation.

However, Sanchez said that these existing technologies cannot provide enough accurate transmission capacity for the application scenarios envisaged by DARPA. The N3 program aims to realize a new non-invasive technology, which will match the direct connection with neurons that can only be realized by embedding electrodes implanted in brain tissue – when neurons are “excited”, the device can record electrical signal activity or trigger other operations such as firing.

The United States uses "non intrusive" man-machine interface technology to provide solutions for soldiers with physical or brain disabilities

The N3 program requires non-invasive technology to be able to read signals and write information into 1 cubic millimeter of brain tissue. The whole process needs to be completed in 10 milliseconds. In order to achieve this goal with skull partition, Emond said researchers must use new methods to detect neural activity. In this regard, he raised the following question: “when a neuron is excited, its reflectivity will change – can we capture the corresponding optical signal? In addition, when excited, it will actually emit sound waves – can we capture this acoustic signal?” he said that this is the difficulty.

Micro invasive technology

This concept was proposed by DARPA to distinguish it from the concept of “minimally invasive” – minimally invasive usually represents endoscopic surgery in medicine. But DARPA believes that the brain docking technology they are studying should not require such a small incision.

On the contrary, micro invasive technology is mainly injected into the body by injecting drugs, pills or even nasal spray. Emondi envisioned that “nano transducers” inside neurons could be rotated to convert electrical signals into other types of signals that could be captured through the skull when electronic signals were transmitted.

It is revealed that at the end of this four-year plan, DARPA hopes that all researchers can demonstrate their technical achievements in the form of “defense related tasks”. For example, a demonstrator may use brain signals to drive a UAV or control a fighter simulator (Jan Scheuermann, a paralyzed woman, did this with a brain implant in 2015).

When asked about the main application of this technology, emondi said he hoped to apply this technology to “active network defense” – that is, use this technology to make security experts really feel the intrusion. “This means that we are no longer online, but online,” he said

At present, all the results developed by N3 plan only belong to the proof of concept scheme, and need to be approved by the regulatory authority before they can be widely used in soldiers or the public. However, considering that many giant enterprises in Silicon Valley are also committed to neural technology, the launch of consumer brain devices seems not far away.

Sanchez of DARPA said that lowering the threshold of man-machine interface technology will open a new era. “We can imagine what future prospects this technology will bring once it is widely used, but it may also cause controversy in society – for example, what are you going to do with your brain?”

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