The Pentagon is trying build tech that would give soldiers the ability to control deadly military drones with their minds.
"Working with drones and swarms of drones, operating at the speed of thought rather than through mechanical devices — those types of things are what these devices are really for," DARPA neuroscientist Al Emondi told MIT Tech Review.
Emondi heads up DARPA's Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology program, which the agency launched in March 2018 in the hopes of developing a brain-computer interface (BCI) that doesn't have to be surgically implanted.
In May 2019, it awarded six teams of researchers across the U.S. funding to pursue that goal, with each approaching it from a different angle. A team at Carnegie Mellon University, for example, is testing whether electrical and ultrasound signals could support a non-invasive BCI, while a group out of Johns Hopkins University is exploring the viability of near-infrared light.
The creation of a device that would allow soldiers to control drones with their minds raises all sorts of troubling questions. What happens if a soldier accidentally thinks a command, for example? Or an enemy gets their hands on one of the devices and wears it themselves?
Those complicated "what ifs" aside, technology developed for the military often makes its way into civilian life eventually, and it's hard to overstate the potential impact of a military-grade non-invasive BCI on society.
The average person could strap on the device, for example, and instantly gain the ability to control every internet-connected device in their lives — from their smartphone to their smart home — with just their thoughts.
The health applications are even more exciting. With such a device, people with missing limbs or paralysis could control prosthetics or even full-body exoskeletons using just their minds — and all without undergoing surgery.
Still, the first step is getting the technology to work, and while the six DARPA teams are making progress on that front, they still have a long way to go before they have a non-invasive BCI that's ready to be worn by anyone — soldier or civilian.
READ MORE: The US military wants super-soldiers to control drones with their minds [MIT Tech Review]
More on BCIs: Watch a Paralyzed Man "Walk" Using a Mind-Reading Exoskeleton