THE US military is funding a project to build a mind-reading helmet that would let soldiers control robots or drones telepathically.
It sounds like the plot of a science fiction film, but a team of neuroengineers hope to develop the headset within four years.
2 The US military is funding a project to build a mind-reading helmetCredit: J. Robinson/Rice University
The helmet would be the first to link human brains to machines without the need for surgery.
Developers believe the technology could be used to control swarms of drones and active cyber defence systems without having to move a muscle.
In a bid to prove the idea, the Texas-based researchers plan to transmit visual images seen by one individual into the minds of blind patients.
The team from Rice University has been given £14.2 million ($18 million) from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create the helmet.
The headset is known as MOANA, which stands for Magnetic, Optical and Acoustic Neural Access device.
It works by using both light and magnetic fields to interact with specially-reprogrammed neurons in the brain of the wearer.
“In four years, we hope to demonstrate direct, brain-to-brain communication at the speed of thought and without brain surgery,” said Rice’s Jacob Robinson, who leads the project.
“Speed is key,” Mr Robinson said in a statement.
MIND-READING HELMET How MOANA works
The MOANA (Magnetic, Optical and Acoustic Neural Access device) uses viruses to deliver two extra genes into the brain.
One encodes a protein that sits on top of neurons and emits infrared light when the cell activates.
Red and infrared light can penetrate through the skull.
This lets a skull cap, embedded with light emitters and detectors, pick up these signals for subsequent decoding.
Ultra-fast and utra-sensitvie photodetectors will further allow the cap to ignore scattered light and tease out relevant signals emanating from targeted portions of the brain, the team explained.
The other new gene helps write commands into the brain.
Using magnetic coils on the headset, the team can then remotely stimulate magnetic super-neurons to fire while leaving others alone.
“We have to decode neural activity in one person’s visual cortex and recreate it in another person’s mind in less than one-twentieth of a second.
“The technology to do that, without surgery, doesn’t yet exist. That’s what we’ll be creating.”
MOANA will test techniques that employ light, ultrasound or electromagnetic energy to read and write brain activity.
The project is part of DARPA’s Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program.
The Pentagon agency is funding five other similar projects aiming to create two-way interfaces that can transmit data between the human brain and machines.
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“These wearable interfaces could ultimately enable diverse national security applications,” a DARPA spokesperson wrote in a statement.
The uses, they wrote, might include “control of active cyber defence systems and swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles, or teaming with computer systems to multitask during complex missions.”
“DARPA is preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone,” said N3 program manager Al Emondi.
2 The MOANA device will test techniques that use light to read brain activity and electromagnetic energyCredit: J. Robinson/Rice University