Wednesday, February 3, 2016


I spent the past two days at the Proposer's Day meeting for the DARPA Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program. It was ... interesting. The program manager wants teams to create technology that can record from 1 million neurons, stimulate 100,000 neurons, and do full duplex (read and write simultaneously) from 1,000 neurons. And he wants it done in four years. And he wants this done in the context of addressing a real neuroprosthetics application such as prosthetic vision or audition. And he wants it done wirelessly. And don't forget to do your FDA IDE application, or to come up with a non-nonsensical financial model for bringing this to market. Oh, it can't be larger than 1cm^3, either. Never mind that the science of cortical stimulation for prosthetic sensory input is basically in its infancy. Or that no one can seem to work out to to keep neural electrodes viable in the brain for more than a couple of years reliably.


On the plus side, DARPA is willing to throw up to $60M on the problem. So there's that.

My sense was that very few of the people in the room actually thought it was technically viable to do all these things in the allotted time (even though it'd still be a major accomplishment if only a subset of the desired outcomes are achieved). This sets up an interesting Catch 22: in order to be a successful proposer, you have to propose a project which you claim will meet the program's goals, even if you don't actually believe that your own goals are realistic. That only seems like a logical conundrum until you remind yourself that $60M is an insane amount of money.

To be fair, its _up to_ $60M, and that's divided out among all winning teams. And each winning team will likely have a large number of teammates in order to have a prayer of addressing all the program's requirements. So the money will have to divide down a lot. But, hey, you can divide $60M a lot of times and still have real money left.

DARPA is an interesting part of the funding ecosystem. Its pretty great that someone is willing to throw big money at over-the-horizon technology. Not all technology develop should necessarily be practical if we (the US? the world?) are to make real progress. And that's actually what bugged me most about this program. The emphasis on 'addressing a real problem', jumping through the various FDA hoops, and/or trying to figure out how any of this could be turned into an end product pretty much misses the point. This research is worth doing just because its worth doing. If there was a business case to be made for any of this stuff, some company would already be on it.

Final thought: there was a lecture on ethics this morning. The speaker brought up some interesting points: most notably about the need to deal head-on with the tin-foil-hat crowd. But the bigger point seemed lost: the time to have an ethical debate is before you start a sustained, decades-long, multi-agency research portfolio on brain interfaces. The best we can do now is to make sure we design systems that are therapeutic, safe, and secure. Discussing the bigger questions of "should we engage in this research" is largely moot at this point.

Anyways, the full DARAPA call for proposals (or Broad Agency Announcement - BAA in the DARPA parlance) can be found here.

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