+ human brain cells or thought processes regarded as analogous to, or in contrast with, computer systems.
+ (chiefly in science fiction) computer technology in which the brain is linked to artificial systems, or used as a model for artificial systems based on biochemical processes.
One of the stranger objectives of President Obama’s Brain Initiative Project came to light this week with the announcement of a new DARPA program that is funding the creation of an implantable neural interface that would bridge the brain-machine divide. But it’s not like in the movies, right? Not quite, but ideas like thought-activated Googling and plugging into the grid are beginning to sound less and less far-fetched.
According to the DARPA news release, the program is aimed at developing an implantable neural device, no larger than one cubic centimeter in size, that would enable data-transfer between the human brain and the digisphere. The interface would be able to resolve the brain’s signal, converting it from the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain into the the ones and zeros of digital computing.
The backers of the new Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program indicate that early applications could help to restore sight or hearing; however the “the fundamental objective of the program is to develop a modular and scalable interface system with the capability to serve a multiplicity of applications to monitor and modulate large-scale activity in the central nervous system.”
The above text implies a uni-directionality to the program goals (from machine to brain), yet a further reading of the available documents suggests the device will feature two-way compatibility.
“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. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”
The NESD program is seeking to bring this imagining into reality by improving upon today’s interfaces.
From the release:
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.
Note that the total number of brain neurons is estimated to be around 100 billion.
Further details about the program are spelled out in a special notice (linked to here) intended to provide guidance to would-be project participants:
“The Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program seeks innovative research proposals to design, build, demonstrate, and validate in animal and human subjects a neural interface system capable of recording from more than one million neurons, stimulating more than one hundred thousand neurons, and performing continuous, simultaneous full-duplex (read and write) interaction with at least one thousand neurons in regions of the human sensory cortex. In addition to achieving substantial advances in scale of interface (independent channel count), proposed systems must also demonstrate simultaneous high-precision in neural activity detection, transduction, and encoding, with single-neuron spike-train precision for each independent channel.”
The paper (DARPA-SN-16-16_FINAL_(003).docx) is worth a read.