from stratrisks.com: The ability to link human brains to machines, create new life forms and build Star Trek-style disease detectors will be the focus of a new Defense Department office soon.
The new office, named the Biological Technology Office, or BTO, will serve as a clearinghouse for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, programs into brain research, synthetic biology and epidemiology. The office will cover everything from brewing up tomorrow’s bioweapon detectors and connecting humans to computers to designing entirely new types of super-strong living materials that could form the basis of future devices.
Cyborgs, Neurochips and Brain-steered Drones
The human brain is often called the most complex object in the known universe, composed of 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapse connections. As a computer, it performs 10,000 trillion operations per second. That’s about one third as fast as the Chinese Tianhe-2 Super computer, which can perform 33,860 trillion calculations per second. But the human brain does it’s calculating with just 20 watts of power. Tianhe-2 needs 24 million watts.
In the last two decades, our understanding of the human brain has advanced tremendously through functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, magnetoenceplograhy, and high-resolution brain scans. Our ability to use brain signaling to control devices has grown at a similar pace, but getting brain material to mesh with sensors and electronics is no simple matter. A DARPA program, Revolutionizing Prosthetics, to better help veterans with amputated limbs control prosthetic legs and arms with brain signals was announced in 2009 but only very recently began to bear fruit. Last year, researchers from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago demonstrated a cybernetic arm prosthetic that functions like something straight out of RoboCop. The BTO will oversee a variety of programs aimed at understanding both the hardware and the software of the human brain.
“The prosthetics that are wirelessly neurally-controlled are just at the research stage. But some of the ones where the prosthetics are connecting in to the peripheral nervous system or are being controlled by other muscles in the body are currently in an FDAprocess,” said Arati Prabhakar, DARPA director, in an interview with Defense One. So while we still haven’t been able to connect a prosthetic directly to the brain, researchers have achieved much better integration with prosthetics and nerves.
Prabhakar says that the research has applications well beyond helping veterans to live better lives, including the creation of devices and chips that mimic the brain. “That kind of amazing capability is something that no one thought was possible. What we’re learning about the human brain could give us insight into how we build our artificial processing capabilities.”
The agency’s Cortical Processor program, with a $2.3 millionFY 2015 budget request, seeks to recreate in software the brain’s capability to take in lots of incoming stimuli from sensory organs and spit out recognized patterns. “There is a processing structure in nature, the mammalian neocortex, that… routinely solves the most difficult recognition problems in real-time…” according to the agency’s recently submitted budget proposal.
One far off potential application for the agency’s brain research is neural-controlled piloting of drones or better steering for manned aircraft via neurological feedback, which could build off of current research using electroencephalography, or EEG, to pilot robots. EEG is a nonsurgical method for recording the brain’s electromagnetic signals via a cap that’s worn over the skull. Those signals are powerful enough to steer some robots.
In 2010, Northeastern University Electrical engineering professor Deniz Erdogmus and several researchers successfully demonstrated the piloting of a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner using thoughts. In 2012, Chinese researchers at Zhejiang University used EEG to pilot a small consumer UAV. These are the sorts of incremental research breakthroughs that seem to suggest that brain-controlled quad-copters are literally hovering around the corner. But EEG signals are too crude to do brain-based piloting in real time combat operations. Useful gains in this area will require getting not just powerful but more precise signals, and that means getting hot electronics closer to the brain. Unfortunately, soft and delicate brain tissue does not easily mix with circuits. It’s a technical and materials challenge of enormous complexity, but hardly outside of the realm of possibility. A group of researchers from Singapore recently unveiled a neural probe that can be integrated on the brain with little damage to cellular structures.
Prabhakar is cautiously optimistic about the future of human-computer interfacing. She says that current research represents “a door opening” into new applications. “I would say we are now standing on this side of the door looking through and seeing what’s going to come out of it.”
In the near term, a fuller understanding of our three-pound thinking organ would allow for improved situational awareness on the battlefield and better decision-making in life or death environments.
“Think about warfighters in these very complex situations where the way that they understand the complexity around them makes all the difference in the world…We’re speculating but it might lead to some great advances.”