The Defense Department's research arm is working on a project that connects human operators' brains to the systems they're controlling—and vice versa.
The idea of humans controlling machines with their minds has spun off sci-fi blockbusters like "Pacific Rim" and entire subgenres of foreign film, but while today skyscraper-sized fighting robots exist only on the big screen, the Pentagon is building technology that could one day make them a reality.
Today, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is selecting teams to develop a "neural interface" that would both allow troops to connect to military systems using their brainwaves and let those systems transmit back information directly to users' brains.
The Next-Generation Non-Surgical Neurotechnology, or N3, program aims to combine the speed and processing power of computers with humans' ability to adapt to complex situations, DARPA said. In other words, the technology would let people control, feel and interact with a remote machine as though it were a part of their own body.
"From the first time a human carved a rock into a blade or formed a spear, humans have been creating tools to help them interact with the world around them," said Al Emondi, the program manager at DARPA's Biological Technologies Office. "The tools we use have grown more sophisticated over time … but these still require some form of physical control interface—touch, motion or voice. What neural interfaces promise is a richer, more powerful and more natural experience in which our brains effectively become the tool."
DARPA began studying interactions between humans and machines in the 1960s, and while technology that merges the two may sound far-fetched, the organization already proved it's possible.
Through its Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, DARPA created a prosthetic limb that disabled veterans can control using an electrode implanted in their brain. The system gives users "near-natural" arm and hand motion while transmitting signals that mirror a sense of touch back to their brain.
Now the agency wants to create a similar apparatus for able-bodied service men and women that doesn't require surgical implants.
The N3 program is divided into two tracks: non-invasive interfaces that sit completely outside the body, and minutely invasive interfaces that could require users to ingest different chemical compounds to help external sensors read their brain activity. In both tracks, technologies must be "bidirectional," meaning they can read brain activity and also write new information back to the user.