Scientists propose 'cortical modem' implant to give you Terminator vision

US military research agency DARPA forsees a tiny implant that could restore sight loss or give you a heads-up display without a helmet or glasses.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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With just a bit of dabbling in your DNA, scientists could plug a heads-up display directly into your brain. Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Forget HoloLens, forget smart glasses and forget augmented reality -- scientists have proposed a "cortical modem" that plugs into your DNA and your visual cortex to cure sight loss and show a heads-up display in front of your very eyes.

The cortical modem concept is the brainchild of DARPA, the US Defense Research Projects Agency. Originally founded in 1958 in response to the launch of Sputnik, DARPA is the US military's research and development agency. It's perhaps best known outside of military circles for the development of ARPANET, an early packet switching network that formed a precursor to the Internet.

The cortical modem concept was presented by DARPA's Phillip Alvelda at a recent pow-wow in Silicon Valley, at which innovators, investors and other big brains were introduced to the agency's Biological Technologies Office (BTO), a blue-sky-thinking initiative announced last year.

During the event, transhumanist publication H+ reports that DARPA was described onstage as a "friendly, but somewhat crazy, rich uncle".

That crazy, rich -- or crazy rich -- uncle foresees the device providing a heads-up display or augmented reality projection appearing in your natural vision with no helmet or smart glasses or anything at all in front of your eyes. Like the Terminator. Or Robocop. Or something less shoot-y.

The short-term plan is for a tiny device about the size of two coins that would give you a heads-up display somewhere around the level of an LED alarm clock. It could cost just $10.

The cortical modem is rooted in the field of optogenetics, which involves studying and even controlling specified cells within living tissue by shining light on them. Light-responsive proteins can be added to the brains of living beings, allowing scientists to turn neurons on or off with never-before-seen precision. They can then study neurological activity -- at the same event presenting real-time visual maps of mouse thoughts -- and potentially even control that activity, perhaps one day correcting neurological disorders.

The cortical modem could do just that, restoring sight to someone with sight loss. Optogenetics is still a relatively young field of study, however, and has yet to be tested in humans -- it would require fiddling around with the DNA in a subject's neurons, which, let's face it, isn't the sort of project you dive into on a Friday afternoon.

The DARPA event also covered such mind-boggling science-fiction-becomes-science-fact topics as insect cyborgs, exoskeletons and life-sized robot elephants -- check out Humanity+ Magazine for more.