Imagine soldiers sitting in a location thousands of miles away from their target and only using their minds to control a weaponized drone. This is the type of technology that The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to create through its Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program.
How Does Mind Control Work?
The basic component of mind control is establishing a link between the brain and an external device. One way researchers accomplish this is by translating brain waves into commands by using electroencephalography (EEG) sensors. EEG is capable of recording the brain's electrical activity.
Scientists have been working on mind control for decades. In 1969, Eberhard Fetz published a paper about his research on a monkey that had one neuron connected to a dial. When the monkey moved the dial with its brain, it received a reward. It learned how to move the dial faster to get more rewards in two minutes.
For now, most of the mind control technology involves EEG sensors like caps worn by people who are playing certain video games or implantable brain devices, but things continue to evolve. The goal is to create more sensitive sensors that are not invasive or harmful.
What Is the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology Program?
In 2018, DARPA announced a call for applications in its Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program that focuses on developing "bi-directional brain-machine interfaces" for military service members. A bi-directional machine interface is a connection between a human being and a machine that allows the person to control the device.
The main benefits of the program are that it doesn't require surgical implantation of devices in a person's brain or body. This makes the technology safer and more accessible. However, DARPA wants the tech to be as effective as electrodes implanted in someone's brain.
In May 2019, DARPA awarded funding to six organizations for the program: Teledyne Scientific, Battelle Memorial Institute, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Rice University and Carnegie Mellon University. These organizations are working on creating brain-machine interfaces that DARPA will be able to use.
Proposed Plans for Mind-Controlled Weapons
Since the technology is in the development stages, the exact research process and any proposed plans for mind-controlled weapons may change. However, DARPA wants these weapons to be ready in four years. Some possible solutions include helmets or headsets that soldiers could wear to control drones or other military equipment. They wouldn't need any keyboards or control panels to work.
The six organizations are looking at electric and magnetic fields to create mind-controlled weapons. They are also examining ultrasounds, light and other methods to accomplish this. Although each team has a different approach, Carnegie Mellon University plans to use ultrasound waves to communicate with the brain. The goal is to create technology that works in 16 locations in the human brain and communicates with brain cells at a speed of 50 milliseconds.
The technology could extend beyond controlling thousands of drones in the sky or tanks on the ground. DARPA may be able to use the tech to send images from one brain to another. Other potential uses could include soldiers being able to sense hackers or security breaches in systems.
The Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology program has several phases. The first one focuses on the organizations developing the ability to read and write to the tissue in the brain through the skull. The second phase will give the teams 18 months to create devices that they can test on animals. During the final step, the teams will test their devices on people.
Four of the organizations are working on devices that are noninvasive, and two teams are creating devices that are slightly invasive but don't require surgery. For example, a soldier may have to swallow a pill or get an injection to interact with a mind-control device. Battelle wants to make magnetoelectric nanoparticles that could be injected in the brain.
DARPA's History of Research into Mind Control
To understand DARPA's interest in mind-controlled weapons, it's important to look at the past. One of the areas that the agency has focused on in the past was mind-controlled prosthetic arms. The DEKA Research and Development Corporation created the LUKE Arm system for DARPA.
The LUKE Arm system, named after Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, stands for Life Under Kinetic Evolution. It's a battery-powered arm with joints that move easier and better than other prosthetics. A person can control the arm through different systems, such as surface EMG electrodes. This means that you could put electrodes on the surface of the skin to control the movement of the arm. It's a noninvasive technique that doesn't require surgery.
While there is a lot of excitement about the potential uses of mind control technology in the military and beyond, there are potential risks that shouldn't be ignored. First, there are ethical and privacy concerns about the technology. What if it falls into the wrong hands and is used in terrible ways?
There are also multiple health concerns with mind control technology. For instance, ultrasound stimulation can excite or stop neural activity in the brain. Today, transcranial ultrasound stimulation is one technique being used to treat seizures in patients with epilepsy. However, if ultrasounds can heal, then they can also harm. Technology that can penetrate the brain and alter neural activity may be used against people to harm them.
Most research on the link between electromagnetic fields and cancer has been inconclusive. However, most people today are not wearing a device, such as a helmet, that transmits electromagnetic waves for long periods of time. Soldiers who are controlling weapons with their minds may have to spend hours being exposed to the device. This presents questions about the risk of brain cancer and other types of cancers.
Mind-controlled weapons are DARPA's goal, and six organizations are working to make it a reality. As the research continues, it's important to consider the ethical, privacy and health consequences of the technology.