DARPA cracks wallet to open heads: Brain interface projects get Uncle Sam's backing

It's hoped cutting-edge tech will bridge broken senses

To your health

At this point, much of the interest in plugging directly into the brain is framed as health research, something that's difficult to assail. But if brain interfaces work as hoped, there may be interest in utilizing them for military, legal, entertainment, or advertising applications.

Asked whether DARPA expects brain–machine interfaces to have applications outside of healthcare, Justin Sanchez, Director of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, in an email to The Register said, "DARPA has worked for decades to improve human-machine interfaces. We funded development of the computer mouse, components of modern smartphones, voice assistants, and other technologies that help humans manage complexity. So in one regard, neurotechnology is an extension of that tradition and we do look forward to a day when advanced brain–machine interfaces enable fluid communication with advanced technology. However, neurotechnology is still in its infancy."

DARPA said it intends to explore the ethical, legal, and social implications of connecting to the brain.

"DARPA works with independent experts in biomedical ethics to help us identify potential issues early in the technology development cycle," said Sanchez. "Their inputs tend to adhere to the theme of maximizing societal benefit while minimizing risk. As a part of their ongoing work, researchers will be considering long-term safety and reliability of devices, privacy, information security, and compatibility with other devices as they explore brain-interface technology development."

Johnson said that while ethical considerations are necessary, "I don't yet think we have a full understanding of the things that will be relevant to debate."

Pointing to the unforeseen consequences of inventions like the electrical grid and the internet, Johnson said, "Humans have always come up short when they've tried to imagine how a new technology may take shape."

Right now, Johnson said, researchers are limited to exploring ways to fix what's broken, because that's where health regulation is focused. But as our understanding of the brain and our tools for interfacing with it get better, he foresees an era of self-directed evolution.

"If the technology works and it can help people improve themselves, the question would be who gets access?" he said.

That and who will have the right to refuse a cortical tap? ®

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