The Pentagon's emerging technologies unit put out a call last week for proposals that use insect brains to control robots — because they could be used to create efficient new models for artificial intelligence, but also because they could be used to explore the meaning of consciousness.
"Nature has forced on these small insects drastic miniaturization and energy efficiency, some having only a few hundred neurons in a compact form-factor, while maintaining basic functionality," reads a document in the proposal. "Furthermore, these organisms are possibly able to display increased subjectivity of experience." It goes on to say that there's evidence suggesting that "even small insects have subjective experiences, the first step towards a concept of 'consciousness.'"
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is famed for funding projects that led to the early internet. But it's also a well-funded research arm for the U.S. military — and one of its key areas of interest, according to a riveting Atlantic feature this past autumn, is to create brain-computer interfaces that can "program soldiers' brains."
The feature suggested broad interest at DARPA in technologies that bridge the gap between computers and the brains of humans and animals.
"They could inject memory using the precise neural codes for certain skills," Justin Sanchez, who directs work at DARPA about research on healing the mind and body, told the magazine about a project that had transplanted memories into the brains of rats. "If I know the neural codes in one individual, could I give that neural code to another person? I think you could."
DARPA is offering $1 million to the company it awards the insect brain proposal to. First the winning bidder will need to complete a feasibility study on mapping an insect's central intelligence system. Then it will need to create a "proof of concept" platform that uses the insect brain architecture to create "more capable AI hardware."
It sounds like a long shot — at least for now. But it's another sign that DARPA is deeply interested in the mysteries of cognition and consciousness.
READ MORE: DARPA Wants to Turn Insect Brains into Robot Brains [Popular Science]
More on insect brains: A New Brain-Interface Device Lets You Control Animals With Your Thoughts