How DARPA drives Brain Machine Interface Research


Published on November 22, 2020

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency invests millions in brain-computer interface projects every year, effectively driving the BCI research agenda. This post catalogs the various programs and their recipients, tracking DARPA's investments over the decades

Nobody has funded the BCI research and development with as much sustained energy as DARPA. Almost every advance or major technology in the field can be traced back to DARPA funding to the researchers. Neuralink's 'sewing machine' surgical robot can be traced to the 5-year $70M SUBNETs program, the initial concept for the Stentrode was funded by the RE-NET program, and the prosthetic limbs used by early Braingate trials were funded by the 'Revolutionizing Prosthetics' program. Startups like Nia Therapeutics, Paradromics, and the recently acquired Iota Biosciences also owe DARPA either for direct investment or for funding of the underlying technology.

The Agency funds multi-million-dollar research programs that typically last 4 years and have very specific ambitious goals. DARPA announces programs publicly, and candidates compete individually or by forming consortia to develop competitive proposals. Successful awardees or recipients are called 'performers'. The research that is funded usually shapes the future of the entire field for a few years.

The overarching goals of DARPA research funding for BCI are

  • Augmenting the cognitive capabilities of its US armed forces personnel
  • Mitigating the human consequences of armed conflict by developing solutions like prosthetic limbs or PTSD therapies.

Almost all programs fall into one of these two categories, but DARPA has also funded a considerable amount of basic neurotechnology research to meet these goals. The military may or may not use the results, but the technology often finds its way into the general public sphere, benefitting the global neuroscience community. Occasionally, investors, corporates, or billionaires pick up promising tech to commercialize it further. Neuralink and Stentrode are on their way to human trials, working with the FDA, but not all DARPA-funded projects succeed. Kernel's early efforts with invasive prosthetics that stemmed from the DARPA-funded REMIND program, were quickly dropped in favor of more consumer-friendly wearables.

Sometimes, DARPA drops programs midway or changes their names, leaving little trace. The 'Accelerated learning' program on tDCS is an example, with press reports and presentations explaining the goals, only for the program to drop off the DARPA website entirely. Conspiracy theories about DARPA and BCI research abound, but most of these information gaps can be chalked up to changes in policy or strategic direction, or just research efforts that didn't pan out.

DARPA BCI Programs through the decades

DARPA's strategic interest in BCI started in the 1960s, when JCR Licklider, the first director of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) published his vision of 'man-computer symbiosis'. The first batch of funding was in 1974, under a program called Close-Coupled Man/Machine Systems, later renamed Biocybernetics. The Biocybernetics program is documented in places with forbidding names like 'The Black Vault', but it's not clear at all that there were any sinister intentions behind it. The documents on Biocybernetics are a great read, explaining how DARPA funded universities for research on EEG, EMG, pupillometry, event-related potentials, MEG, and related technology. They also are surprisingly candid, admitting to burocatic missteps, funding lapses, and a 'checkered history reflecting programmatic, organizational and personnel changes at DARPA'. The Biocybernetics program was the first consequential BCI funding in an era when all brain science was 'psychophysiolocial', and most notably led to the discovery of event-related potentials and the P300 component.

The 1980s and 90s are devoid of any documented DARPA investment in this technology, but DARPA's interest picked up again in 2002 and has since grown considerably. DARPA funded both Invasive and non-invasive BCI research in the 2000s, under the umbrella of the AugCog and HAND programs. The HAND program was especially broad in its goals, with funding stretching from 2002 well into 2015.

In the late 2000s, DARPA started to expand and split up this funding into multiple, more specific programs. The Revolutionizing Prosthetics was one of the biggest and most successful, leading to the development of modern functional prosthetics. DARPA also invested heavily in memory enhancement and recovery through the RAM, RAM-Replay, and REMIND programs. Around the same time, another set of programs — Silent Talk, Accelerated Learning, NIA, CT2WS — were all funded to improve performance at various cognitive tasks, and communicating non-invasively with machines. Another program, RE-NET, funded basic and translational research to solve the problem of long-term stability of neural interfaces. The current decade has seen more focus on peripheral interfaces, with the Electrx, HAPTIX, and TNT programs.

While each new program manager redefines priorities, DARPA seems to learn from any failures and adapt accordingly. New programs have started focusing on cooperation with FDA early in the R&D process, and calls for proposals now routinely emphasize ethical, legal, and social aspects of the technology. New programs have clear goals for paths to human use — for both invasive and non-invasive technology. Having observed that it will take decades before invasive brain implants can be used in healthy individuals, DARPA is now also focusing on investments in non-invasive or 'minutely invasive' technology for these applications.

The People Behind the Programs — DARPA Program Managers

Each DARPA program is the brainchild of a program manager. These are powerful and interesting figures, handpicked for their role, which is to set ambitious goals for BCI technology and to shape its research trajectory. They have a limited tenure at DARPA- typically 4 years, but most make their mark on the field during that time. One of the best ways to learn about DARPA programs is to listen to DARPA program managers, where they explain how they got the job, why they picked the priority areas they did, and learn how DARPA works. DARPA hosts a podcast series, where program manager Eric Van Gieson has been featured speaking about some current programs. The Neural Implant Podcast has also hosted 40-minute interviews with DARPA program managers Jack Judy, the architect of the RE-NET program, and Doug Weber, who speaks about his enthusiasm for peripheral interfaces.

Who gets DARPA funding?

Over the decades, the profile of DARPA BCI research 'performers' has also evolved. In the early 2000s, most BCI contracts went to large corporations — think Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Booz Allen Hamilton — but the newer programs are more focused on universities. In recent years DARPA has funded several small businesses or startups, most notably Paradromics in 2017. Performers are almost always are from the United States, with a few exceptions, such as the Stentrode funding to the University of Melbourne.

DARPA contracts are large and many recipients are large consortia. Universities and corporations often partner to receive funds and sub-contract them. For example, the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program was led by two teams of investigators, DEKA and The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL). DEKA worked with two universities and a private developer, while APl subcontracted to nineteen primary level contractors (universities and private companies) with ten second-tier subcontractors and collaborators from six countries overall. Of late the number of recipients is smaller, even for large grants.

DARPA also funds BCI research outside these named programs, through mechanisms like open calls and small business innovation grants.

Conclusion

There is no other agency in the world that funds neurotechnology research with the unmitigated focus that DARPA does. It's no wonder that their funding has driven the research agenda for neural interfaces for decades. It's anybody's guess what DARPA's next BCI program will fund, but the agency is certain to continue to steer the BCI community's research efforts for many years to come.

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