The Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) programme, which was first announced in March 2018, allows for the development of high-resolution, bidirectional brain-machine interfaces for use by able-bodied service members.
According to Darpa, these wearable interfaces could ultimately enable diverse national security applications such as control of active cyber-defence systems and swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles.
The agency is also hoping such an interface could make it easier for service members to carry out complex tasks as well as help them multitask.
“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 programme manager Al Emondi.
“By creating a more accessible brain-machine interface that doesn’t require surgery to use, Darpa could deliver tools that allow mission commanders to remain meaningfully involved in dynamic operations that unfold at rapid speed.”
Over the past 18 years, Darpa has demonstrated increasingly sophisticated neurotechnologies that rely on surgically implanted electrodes to interface with the central or peripheral nervous systems.
For the military’s primarily able-bodied population to benefit from neurotechnology, nonsurgical interfaces are required, with the agency highlighting how the N3 project aims to “create reliable neural interfaces without the need for surgery or implanted electrodes”.
According to Darpa, the N3 teams are pursuing a range of approaches that use optics, acoustics and electromagnetics to record neural activity and/or send signals back to the brain at high speed and resolution. The research is split between two tracks.
The teams are pursuing either completely non-invasive interfaces that are entirely external to the body or minutely invasive interface systems, including nanotransducers, that can be temporarily and non-surgically delivered to the brain to improve signal resolution (see graphic below).