The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has unveiled a new milestone in brain-computer interfaces with the announcement that a quadriplegic woman was able to control a F-35 fighter jet in a flight simulator using only her thoughts. Jan Scheuermann first made headlines in 2012 when, after volunteering to have two probes placed onto the surface of her left motor cortex as part of a DARPA project, she was able to control a sophisticated robotic arm via though signals picked up by her neural implants.
Several experiments and upgrades to the arm later, Scheuermann decided to try something new with her implant. "Jan decided she wanted to try flying a Joint Strike Fighter simulator," DARPA director Dr. Arati Prabhakar told an audience during the first Future of War conference in Washington, DC last week. The conference, organized by DC-based nonpartisan research group the New America Foundation, "brings together a diverse, interdisciplinary collection of experts to discuss the profound social, political, economic, and cultural implications of the changing nature of war and conflict."
"Instead of thinking about controlling a joystick, which is what our ace pilots do, Jan's thinking about controlling the airplane directly," Prabhakar said. "And in fact for someone who's never flown -- she isn't a pilot in real life -- she's in there flying that simulator directly from her neural signaling."
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Prabhakar commented that the technology was far from ready for mass adoption and it will be a while before we see soldiers or even civilians controlling machines with our minds. She mentioned particularly there were important ethical considerations to make. "We're talking about crossing some very important ethical boundaries when you start talking about people being able to do this very different way of connecting their brains to the rest of the world," Prabhakar said. "We think it's a very important time to think about what those next steps in research are going to be; to engage a bigger community."
Her eventual hope is that the DARPA research will have benefits beyond military applications. "In doing that work we've also opened this door," Prabhakar said. "We can now see a future were we can free a brain from the limitations of the human body."
Watch Dr. Arati Prabhakar's full talk at the Future of War Conference:
Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News.