Melding artificial silicon with breathing tissue is no longer fantasy peddled by science fiction writers. That is at least what New York Times best-selling author and journalist Annie Jacobsen reports. In her new book, The Pentagon’s Brain, Jacobsen argues that DARPA has been secretly implanting computer chips into soldiers’ brains in order to treat trauma and boost performance on the battlefield.
In August 2014, President Obama enacted 19 plans to better the mental health of U.S. soldiers and veterans. One of the plans included developing computer chips that could be inserted into brain tissue to aid the nervous system. In theory, this technology could be used to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a very serious condition associated with military service.(1)
According to Jacobsen, DARPA has already started testing “neuroprosthetic” brain implants, but she was unable to interview any veterans with a brain chip. However, according to Defense One, an online magazine that covers the military, DARPA is not expected to have a prototype ready for another five years.
Pentagon dips into budget to develop brain chips
In May 2014, the Pentagon announced that it was working on developing brain computer chips using money from a research program dedicated to building “new, minimally invasive neurotechnologies.” Nevertheless, Jacobsen claims that DARPA is already planting these brain chips into wounded soldiers coming back from the Middle East.(1)
“Of the 2.5 million Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 300,000 of them came home with traumatic brain injury,” journalist Annie Jacobsen told NPR, as reported by the International Business Times (IBT). “DARPA initiated a series of programs to help cognitive functioning, to repair some of this damage, and those programs centre [sic] around putting brain chips inside the tissue of the brain.”(1)
The brain is a tapestry of neurons pulsating with electrical current. Brain implants can theoretically tap into and manipulate that electrical current for the better. Scientists outside the Pentagon’s research program are experimenting on how to use brain chips to translate thoughts into actions for people with neurological problems. Some DARPA programs have even flirted with the idea of using brain implants to enable soldiers to communicate with each other on the battlefield by thought alone.(1)
A double-edged sword
Brain computer chips aren’t without risk. Like any scientific innovation, brain chips can be used for good or evil. Although this new technology is intended to help injured soldiers, Jacobsen reminds her readers that DARPA is an agency responsible for developing weapons.
According to the folks working to develop A.I., the human brain isn’t just like a computer program; it is a computer program. In principle, it should be possible to replicate that program. Brain chips, therefore, would be a step toward understanding both brains and computers. In DARPA’s eyes, however, brain chips are a necessary step toward developing autonomous weapons. A step toward developing the first artificially intelligent drones, for example.
“This is a concern that has been voiced to me by many knowledgeable scientists who have worked with Darpa over the years,” said Jacobsen, as reported by IBT.(1)
“And what my sources suggested to me was that the key to artificial intelligence lies inside the human brain. And the suggestion is that these brain-chip programs that Darpa keeps very classified are, in fact, prototypes to push artificial intelligence to becoming a reality,” she added.(1)
Whether or not DARPA has developed and inserted computer chips into soldiers’ brains is questionable. Nueroscientists do not have a biological understanding of the brain in the same way doctors have a biological understanding of the heart. Before research scientists can take steps toward treating the brain, they first must have a competent understanding of the brain. Brain chips may be pieces to that puzzle, but they’re not the whole picture.