What comes after smartphones? Brain implants, maybe.

“Uh oh, I may have forgotten my password…”
“Uh oh, I may have forgotten my password…”
Image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
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It would be the ultimate user interface: a device the size of two stacked nickels that allows your thoughts to control computers. The only catch is it’ll have to be implanted in your brain.

That’s what the Department of Defense’s cutting-edge research unit DARPA is working on, as part of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, a concerted push to advance neuroscience. It’s also what Qualcomm chief technology officer Matt Grob believes could come to market for consumers when 6G, or so-called sixth generation wireless technologies, arrives.

“When you look at 1G being for voice, for your ears. And 3G through 5G are data for your eyes, for a vision service. perhaps 6G will go beyond the head mounted displays to introduce direct neural interface,” Grob said at Quartz’s The Next Billion conference held in San Francisco on Oct. 13.

Qualcomm is a member of the industry group that’s been formed to support the DARPA project with access to its rapid prototyping and manufacturing of neuro-engineering components. Qualcomm, which makes smartphone chips and was a key developer of the LTE technology behind 4G, is well-positioned to contribute. It will give DARPA access to charging and powering solutions for brain implants, ultra-low-power electronics designs and data compression and processing technology, according to DARPA (pdf).

Implants could feed sensory data into the brain at high resolution, and it could be one way to address sight or hearing deficits, DARPA said when the Neural Engineering System Design program was announced. “Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” said Phillip Alvelda, the NESD program manager, at the time.

Low-power brain implants hooked up to ultra-high speed 6G data networks would certainly make Google Glass and Snap’s Spectacles look antiquated. But don’t hold your breath: New generations of wireless tech have generally been introduced in 10-year phases, which puts 6G’s arrival at 2030.