Is The Future Soldier A Cyborg?

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The US military has embarked on a venture to make cyborgs a reality by creating a chip that could connect a human brain directly to a computer. The Defence Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) is developing the chip to “open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”

There have been numerous attempts in the past to create brain-machine interfaces, with DARPA leading the charge on several occasions. None of them have been tremendously successful. The agency has once again picked up the gauntlet, and to this purpose has created the Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) research programme. NESD’s aim is to increase neuron-machine interactions by several orders of magnitude.

“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem [editor’s note: the first 300-baud modem was released in 1962],” said Phillip Alvelda, 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.”

To achieve this, DARPA hopes to build a chip no larger than one cubic centimetre to be implanted in the brain. Once in place and connected, the chip would convert the electrochemical signals of brain neurons into the digital language of ones and zeros, and vice versa.

If successful, the project could birth such varied applications as enhancing a soldier’s vision and hearing, with data from external sensors fed directly into the brain, or fine control over a physical augmentation like a third arm. First, though, breakthroughs must happen in neuroscience, synthetic biology, medical devices, and low-power electronics.

Whatever the applications are, the military is likely to first enjoy the fruits of this labour. From there, the technology will filter down to the civilian realm, like it has done with speech translation, GPD, and even the internet itself.