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​DARPA has awarded six contracts for six specific research initiatives attempting to map out and translate the hearing, vision, and speech neuron language into ones and zeros. Illustration courtesy of DARPA.

​—Gideon Grudo

A year and a half after announcing it’s trying to implant devices into humans that can communicate with the digital world, DARPA announced it has awarded six contracts to five organizations and a company to support its Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program.


The program’s broad aim is to take the language neurons in our brains use to communicate and translate it into ones and zeros, with an interface further translating those ones and zeros into languages we can understand. And all this happens in a “biocompatible device no larger than one cubic centimeter in size, roughly the volume of two nickels stacked back to back,” according to program’s profile. Most of the work in this step of the program will focus on vision, hearing, and speech.

“The NESD program looks ahe​ad to a future in which advanced neural devices offer improved fidelity, resolution, and precision sensory interface for therapeutic applications,” said Phillip Alvelda, the founding NESD Program Manager, in a DARPA release.

At first, the program will aim to figure out the hardware, software, and neuroscience involved in the undertaking, and testing the conglomerate in animals and cultured cells. The second phase will involve mapping the way to testing humans and will advance in partnership with the FDA.

Each team chosen has a different set of challenges to overcome.

Brown University’s team will try to look to tone and vocalization to map out how the brain processes speech. Its proposed interface is what it calls neurograins, which are implanted onto or into the cerebral cortex. It would be powered by a flexible, electronic patch.

Columbia University’s team will focus on vision, trying to create a bioelectric interface with the visual cortex that doesn’t penetrate it. Its proposed interface is a single, flexible semiconductor with an electrode array. It would be wirelessly powered by a device worn on the head.

Fondation Voir et Entendere’s team will also focus on vision, trying to build a communications device between neurons in the visual cortex and a camera-like, high-definition retina worn on the eye.

John B. Pierce Laboratory’s team will also focus on vision, aiming to build a system by which neurons that are responsive to optogenetic—light-sensitive—stimulation communicate with a prosthetic eye.

Paradromics’ team will focus on speech, aiming to build a device to support its restoration by recording incoming sounds and stimulating neurons concurrently.

University of California, Berkley’s team will attempt to build a holographic microscope-like device to detect and modulate up to a million neurons’ specific activities.

“DARPA has been a pioneer in brain-machine interface technology since the 1970s, but we began investing heavily in the early 2000s when the confluence of improved sensing and information technology opened the door to new capabilities,” said Justin Sanchez, director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office.