DARPA: We’re on cusp of merging human and machine

Cyborgs? Not yet. But researchers are working on mind-controlled prosthetics and amped-up soldiers

We are at the point where computers and machines are no longer going to be simply tools. Computers are becoming, literally, part of us.

"There are a couple of very interesting things happening as we speak facilitating humans and machines working together in a very different way," said Justin Sanchez, director of the Biological Technologies Office at DARPA.

Smart exoskeletons help people with paralysis walk again, give soldiers extra strength and endurance, and implanted computer chips help the blind see again or help others feel a sense of touch in a prosthetic foot.

It might not be a sci-fi vision of cyborgs, but a near future where soldiers might have implanted chips that help them communicate in the battlefield or receive information from GPS systems or drones.

According to Sanchez, we are on the cusp of seeing the merging of humans and machines.

"I think the recent science and technology developments we're making at DARPA, as well as the embracing of physiology and A.I., is enabling us to set up the conditions for profound changes on how humans and machines can work together," said Sanchez, a biomedical engineer who also holds a doctor of philosophy degree.

"We are giving our physiology the opportunity to work with machines in a different way," he added.

For several years now scientists have been working to combine machines with living, organic material, creating a hybrid system.

In 2008, scientists, hoping to one day allow people with paralysis to walk again by using their brain waves to control exoskeletons, were able to control a robot using a monkey's brain activity.

Four years later, another group of researchers developed a device that delivered brain signals to a paralyzed hand by skipping over the regular route through the spinal cord.

Ten years ago, researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson used a moth's eyes and brain to guide a robot. At the time, project researcher Charles Higgins said he thought in 10 to 15 years we'd have hybrid computers, running a combination of living tissue and technology.

He wasn't the only one making that kind of prediction.

Andrew Chien, who was then director of future technologies research at Intel Labs, said in 2009 that by 2020, an Internet user would be able to bypass her keyboard and mouse and control her computer with her brain waves.

These might sound like outlandish predictions, but DARPA's Sanchez said it's not as crazy as it might have sounded several years ago.

"Advancement of A.I. is making machines more powerful in the way they can understand everything from scientific papers to interpreting them and helping us solve big problems," said Sanchez. "Another aspect to consider is our society [is] embracing things like wearables that... allow algorithms to analyze our physiology. Great examples of that are being able to monitor your sleep patterns and provide feedback on if you should change the time you go to bed or wake up in the morning."

Sanchez said we're at the point where wearables could easily be made to communicate with smart thermostats so heat could be turned up or the AC turned on automatically, depending on the user's needs.

"That's where this merging of humans and machines is heading," said Sanchez. "Having the environment, the thermostat, change as the function of our physiology -- that's near term."

Dan Olds, an analyst with OrionX, said he too thinks scientists are at a tipping point when it comes to linking biology and machines.

"The fact that we're getting so much experience in building sensors and interpreting the output from them with very small devices makes me think we're on the cusp of something," he said. "Look at advances in A.I., advances in processing capability. It's all coming together."

In the near term, there's a lot happening in the medical area.

Within three to five years, researchers could have a device that helps people with brain injuries form and recall memories.

"We absolutely have people working on that now," said Sanchez. "Direct neural interfaces are being developed."

He added that DARPA-backed researchers are working on implantable devices that have computing capabilities akin to a standard desktop or laptop. Scientists want to make them powerful enough to process neural signals and use them to control devices.

With these powerful implantable devices and chips, researchers could help people with paralysis move and feel again by allowing them to control a prosthetic limb with their thoughts.

"We see a very interesting and different future because of the work we're doing today," said Sanchez, who noted that they're also working on how people could interface with these devices and chips without having them surgically implanted in their bodies.

He also said that they are rethinking the way we connect with and use our smartphones. "How could our brains and machines work together in a very different way than they do today?" Sanchez asked.

For instance, instead of carrying a smartphone in your pocket or holding it in your hand to make a call or set up restaurant reservations online or search for information, what if you didn't need the actual device at all?

Maybe you simply could say or think, "Call Mom," or "Open my Uber app and get me a ride home," and it would happen because you have a neural interface connecting with a system in the cloud.

Since this is DARPA -- which is a research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense -- there obviously is going to be a military focus to this research, as well.

Sanchez said, for instance, that enabling humans and machines to work together better might mean having a device or implantable chip that could help a soldier to learn a new language much more easily.

Olds suggested that one possible scenario could have a soldier wearing a contact lens to help him to see what a drone is seeing from above.

Sanchez is fully aware that some people will be frightened by the thought of smart lenses or chips being implanted in someone's brain -- a soldier or a civilian.

"We deeply feel that we can't do this work in a vacuum," he said. "We need to consider all aspects... the moment we try to even start thinking about science and technology in this space. There's a responsibility that goes along with this."

As for Olds, he's not nervous about the advances that are coming.

"Not yet," he said. "You could get nervous later on when we are talking about augmenting the brain, but the abilities we're talking about now are pretty benign. Right now, the pace of advances is really exciting."

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