DARPA funds a program so computers can read thoughts

DARPA hopes to create a device that will convert brain signals into digital data

Reading data from the brain

In the future, computers may be able to read your thoughts through a connection with the brain. DARPA wants to create a device that could help make that happen.

The device, which will be the size of two stacked nickels, will translate information from a brain into digital signals for use on a computer. The device is being developed as part of a four-year, US$60 million research program funded by DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which operates under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Defense.

The program, called Neural Engineering System Design (NESD), is one of DARPA's many research programs that aims to bring brain-like intelligence to computers. The research program will cover neuroscience, low-power chips, photonics and medical devices.

DARPA hopes its device will open a faster channel for the brain and computer to communicate. The goal is to convert sensory information like sights and sounds that are stored in the brain to digital data -- or 1s and 0s -- more quickly than possible today.

The equipment used today for brain signals to interface with computers is extremely slow, much like supercomputers "trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” DARPA said in a statement.

Some equipment available to gather data from the brain include EEG and MRI equipment. Neural headsets from companies like Emotiv claim to track moods, stress levels and movement. The devices have a limited set of channels through which to interface with the brain.

DARPA hopes its new device will communicate with neurons over millions of channels simultaneously. The result will be clearer signals, and more signals will help to better interpret data .

DARPA's programs sometime never materialize as planned. But technologies emerging from the research could help people with brain trauma or hearing or visual disabilities.

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