Earlier this month it was reported that the U.S. military is currently developing a brain-computer interface that could allow soldiers to control drones with their thoughts, and without the need for any surgery. With $104 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Next-generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology Program (N³) is being led by three graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

It is the latest effort to create a “Brain-Computer Interface,” or BCI, a concept that was first conceived in the 1970s by UCLA computer scientist Jacques J. Vidal. Past efforts to make it a reality involve reading the electroencephalography (EEG) – which records electrical activity in the brain by utilizing electrodes placed on the skull.

The N³ program is taking this further, but will involve the development of new devices to read the signals from the brain. It could build on BCIs that are commonly used today to aid those who have lost control of their limbs. In those cases, patients are typically administered surgical implants to the skull that helps facilitate communication between neurons in the body.

DARPA is often on the cutting edge of technology, in the space where laws and ethics are not always clear.

“The military has been working on a lot of interesting, and somewhat frightening products,” said Rob Enderle, technology industry analyst at the Enderle Group. “A few years back I read about a technology that basically turned off your inner voice, the one that tells you can’t do something,” explained Enderle.

split second decisions: Brain vs. hand

If current efforts are a success, it could change the way soldiers react with technology. The question is whether this will require greater concentration on a task.

“A direct brain-machine interface would help soldiers act more quickly – but it would not necessarily speed up their ability to make decisions,” said Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science, developers of cognitive training program BrainHQ.

“With this technology, a soldier could act – such as by directing a weapon’s fire or maneuvering a vehicle – at the speed of thought,” Mahncke told ClearanceJobs.

“There would be no delay from pulling a trigger or turning a steering wheel, but that doesn’t mean that the decision to act would be faster – or better, for that matter,” Mahncke added. “At best, a direct brain interface would allow a soldier to control weapons or vehicles as naturally as they walk or speak – those external systems would operate as naturally as the soldier’s body.”

“It shouldn’t require any more concentration – and it might require less,” noted Mahncke. “For example, walking is so natural and automatic to us that we can do it without thinking, which is normally helpful to us. Controlling a weapons system as automatically as we walk would make it fast – but would increase the need to make the right decision to act quickly and accurately.”

Risk of Friendly Fire

The counterpoint, however, is that such technology might not allow for those split-second decisions not to fire.

“Friendly fire incidents can occur regardless of how a weapon system is controlled, but the faster the weapon system acts, the less opportunity there is for a soldier to stop the wrong action in time,” said Mahncke. “A soldier with a normally-controlled weapon system might see a threat, start to pull the trigger of their weapon and be able to stop that motion as they realize the threat is actually an ally.”

Therefore, with a brain-computer interface, the weapon might have already been fired. However, this could be used in conjunction with other technology that could reduce the risk of friendly fire.

“The military is investing a huge amount of effort in Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems, which are electronic systems that help soldiers rapidly know if a potential target is a friend or foe,” explained Mahncke. “But the reality is that every decision to shoot will be made by a human – until autonomous weapon systems are built, which raises another set of ethical issues – so the speed of accuracy of a soldier’s decision making becomes only more important as weapon systems become quicker to activate.”

Addressing Serious Injuries

The other benefit that BCI could provide is a way to address battlefield injuries.

“Once you can direct from the brain you can create an electronic bridge that would bypass damaged parts of the body to restore movement,” said Enderle.

“It could do wonders for paraplegics for instance,” Enderle told ClearanceJobs. “There will likely be side effects that will have to be vetted, but once you begin to create interfaces into the brain it opens up cybernetics as a very real way to repair and enhance people and animals. The deeper understanding that results should help, eventually, with brain repair as well.”

There is even the possibility that BCIs could be used to help soldier recover from traumatic brain injuries.

“Traumatic brain injuries typically cause a different kind of result – impairments in cognitive function, as well as sleep or mood changes,” said Mahncke. “There is research going on into next-generation brain-interface technologies that might be able to augment memory or replace/extend damaged sensory functions. That’s an incredible possibility – but it will require a lot more work.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.