Press Release

Johns Hopkins APL Collaborates with Facebook’s Building 8 to Develop Breakthrough Brain–Computer Interface Technologies

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 14:25

For the past decade, APL has led the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Revolutionizing Prosthetics (RP) Program, and in the process created the most advanced neurally controlled prosthetic limb in the world. Using this technology, patients whose bodies are paralyzed have been able to feed themselves, reached out to loved ones and even control a flight simulator.

Building on this success, APL has worked to increase the reach of neural prosthetics. Earlier this year, in collaboration with Johns Hopkins Medicine, APL demonstrated the ability to decode semantic information — information about the meanings of words — from neural signals measured using electrodes placed on the surface of the brain in patients undergoing treatment for epilepsy. Similarly, APL has been designing noninvasive optical imaging methods to replace the use of implanted electrodes in order to make these technologies accessible beyond clinical applications.

“The Revolutionizing Prosthetics program has been an incredible driver of new innovations,” said APL Director Ralph Semmel. “Our engineers are always seeking to have a positive impact on our nation, and the improvement of prosthetics for our wounded warriors is a great way to do that.”

As announced today at Facebook’s F8 conference, APL is currently applying these advances to support a new project in Facebook’s Building 8, the company’s hardware development and research and development group. The project focuses on developing a silent speech interface that will allow users to type 100 words per minute — five times faster than typing on a smartphone — using only their thoughts.

“This program is an excellent example of how APL is transitioning novel technologies developed for Revolutionizing Prosthetics into other domains,” Semmel said. “The research agreement with Facebook has also allowed us to expand our pioneering brain–machine interface work, and further combine our expertise in neuroscience with our expertise in optical imaging.”

In December 2016, Johns Hopkins University and its Applied Physics Laboratory joined a select group of universities and research centers in a unique collaboration agreement with Building 8. The Sponsored Academic Research Agreement, or SARA, allows Facebook to set up research projects within weeks or even days, rather than months. Facebook’s Building 8 is headed by Regina Dugan, former director of DARPA, and applies DARPA-style breakthrough development at the intersection of science and products.

The work is being conducted in APL’s National Health Mission Area, which focuses on delivering effective and resilient systems solutions to complex health care challenges.

“This research has the potential to radically transform our ability to measure and understand brain activity associated with numerous neurological conditions,” said Sezin Palmer, mission area executive for National Health at APL. “We are ecstatic to be developing a system that may not only enable mind-blowing applications for our sponsor but also open up an entirely new world to doctors and researchers working to understand the markers of neurological health and human performance.”

“APL has a diverse set of skills and capabilities to address this challenge,” said APL’s David Blodgett, project manager and chief scientist of the Research and Exploratory Development Department. “We needed expertise ranging from neuroscience to optical remote sensing, which are very different fields of study — but at APL, it’s all found on the same campus.”

Along with JHU and APL, the original 17 organizations to join the Facebook SARA are the California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Rice University, University of California San Francisco, UC Berkeley, Northeastern University, Princeton University, University of Waterloo (Canada), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Arizona State University, Texas A&M University, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech.

For 75 years, Johns Hopkins APL’s engineers and scientists have served as trusted advisors and technical experts to the government. The Lab also maintains independent research and development programs that pioneer and explore emerging technologies and concepts to address future national priorities.

APL is the nation’s largest university affiliated research center (UARC); these are independent, nonprofit organizations that conduct essential research, development and systems engineering to support national security needs.