Say hello to The Matrix: DARPA looks to link brains and computers

DARPA: Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem

Credit: Reuters

Building a high-speed brain-to-computer interface that would offer “unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world” is the goal of a new program announced by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency recently.

The research agency’s Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) want to develop an implantable device that would “serve as a translator, converting between the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology. You may recall in the sci-fi film The Matrix, protagonists were plugged into a violent virtual future world though a brain interface.

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The goal with NESD is to achieve a 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 stated.

“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.   “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.”

brain 619 316 DARPA

DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design program aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world. (Source: Shutterstock)

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, Alveda stated in a release.

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The program sounds like a complex undertaking. For example DARPA states:

  • In parallel with hardware developments and innovations in neural transduction techniques, the NESD program seeks to advance the state of the art in algorithms to identify neurons, neural circuits, and patterns of population-coded activity that represent and encode specific sensory stimuli and transform this neural-coded information to and from the digital electronic domain. New mathematical transformation algorithms will need to accommodate the increased scale of neural input/output, and leverage the developed NESD hardware systems to validate simultaneous high-bandwidth and high-precision, bi-directional information transfer between the system and animal/human subjects.
  • NESD hardware components and algorithms must be modular in design with clear, well-defined hardware interconnect and software Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that can easily accommodate upgrades to componentry, new neural signal transduction modalities, and/or algorithms to enable their use as foundational engineering platforms for future research and development.
  • Successful NESD proposals must culminate in the delivery of complete, functional, implantable neural interface systems and the functional demonstration thereof. The final system must read at least one million independent channels of single-neuron information and stimulate at least one hundred thousand channels of independent neural action potentials in real-time. The system must also perform continuous, simultaneous full-duplex interaction with at least one thousand neurons.

DARPA said it expects to spend $60 million in the NESD program over four years.

The DARPA project is the second major brain-related venture announced recently. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, the radical research arm of the of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, this month said it was looking to develop human brain-like functions into a new wave of computers.

IARPA said it was looking at two groups to help develop this new generation of computers: computer scientists with experience in designing or building computing systems that rely on the same or similar principles as those employed by the brain and neuroscientists who have credible ideas for how neural computing can offer practical benefits for next-generation computers.

From the IARPA request for information: …”the principles of computing underlying today's state of the art digital systems deviate substantially from the principles that govern computing in the brain. In particular, whereas mainstream computers rely on synchronous operations, high precision, and clear physical and conceptual separations between storage, data, and logic; the brain relies on asynchronous messaging, low precision storage that is co-localized with processing, and dynamic memory structures that change on both short and long time scales.”

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