Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on the day's biggest business stories

Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Connecting brains directly to machines has helped paralyzed people begin to speak and amputees feed themselves again — early steps toward the miraculous cures that have been the main focus of the neurotechnology field.

But a smaller group of researchers and startups — plus the Pentagon — is working toward an even longer-term goal fraught with scientific and moral hurdles. They plan to improve on healthy humans, in a bid to pick up where evolution left off.

Why it matters: If scientists can achieve this lofty goal — and make the technology to do it widely available — they would bring about the most significant transformation in how humans operate since we fashioned the first stone tools millions of years ago.

The big picture: People interact with the world by perceiving it — with senses like sight, touch and other less familiar ones — and then acting on it by moving their bodies. And over time, we learn how to adjust our actions to better achieve our goals.

  • Neurotechnology aims to augment these fundamental abilities — receiving input, producing output, and learning — with a direct brain connection to machines.
  • Brain devices are already beginning to restore senses or motor functions that people have lost or were born without. But scientists believe they can also add new ones, essentially creating superhumans capable of feats the average person is not.

What's happening: Improving on humans is Elon Musk's ultimate goal for Neuralink, his brain–computer interface startup. Musk argues that supplementing the brain is crucial for humanity to avoid being left behind by AI.

  • Kernel, another buzzy startup, says it's creating brain technology to enhance intelligence, but details remain thin.
  • And dozens of academic labs are developing and testing these devices — many funded by DARPA's six-year-old BRAIN Initiative, which aims in part to train soldiers and Pentagon bureaucrats faster and further than ever before.

How it works: These technologies communicate with the brain — from outside the skull or by sticking electrodes straight into it — in order to read neural data, and often also to write information back in.

  • Theoretically, people could acquire senses that we're not born with — like rats that have received brain implants allowing them to see in the dark with infrared vision.
  • And just as early brain-connected prosthetics allow amputees to move an artificial limb as if it's their own arm, so too could people eventually be jacked into a computer or a faraway drone, controlling it like an extension of their body.

One long-term vision — along the lines of what Musk imagines — is a direct hookup to a powerful computer. Just like you reach for a calculator to compute a tip, you'd rely on a brain-connected computer for complex operations — but without being slowed down by slow biological intermediaries: your fingers and your eyes.

"We could potentially offload [a task] to the computer that is more suited for machine assistance (e.g., calculation speed, image recognition, repetitive tasks), in which case the processing power of computer-based AI models could directly augment our brains’ natural cognitive and computational abilities."
— Al Emondi, Biological Technologies program manager, DARPA

But a likely earlier outcome doesn't involve plugging straight to a machine. Instead, researchers are connecting up to brains to help people learn the way they always have — just a little faster.

  • Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh are reading data from volunteers' brains as they learn to control a computer cursor with their minds. Understanding which tasks are easier or harder to pick up could help eventually develop counterintuitive ways to learn faster — customized for each person's mind.
  • Scientists at the University of Maryland are testing an earbud that stimulates the vagus, an important nerve connected to the brain stem, to temporarily boost a person's learning capacity. In early tests, it has speeded up second-language learning, says Polly O'Rourke, the researcher leading the study.

What's next: One early concern is whether these inventions would be out of reach for some, granting wealthy people superpowers while leaving others with nothing more than their natural cognitive abilities.

  • Non-invasive devices are most likely to be widely taken up. A tool to speed learning that sits in the ear — no skull holes required — would be "extremely convenient, relatively inexpensive, and could offer a real benefit," O'Rourke tells Axios.
  • Another more haunting prospect is that analyzing a person's brain activity could reveal information about their past experiences that they may not want to divulge, says Byron Yu, a Carnegie Mellon professor.

Go deeper: The Pentagon wants to weaponize the brain (The Atlantic)

Go deeper

By the numbers: Where the earmarks are wanted

Expand chart
Data: House Committee on Appropriations; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The Dallas-Fort Worth area is being targeted for the largest collective earmark request in the country, according to a detailed breakdown of overall requests released by the House Appropriations Committee.

Why it matters: House appropriators are trying to balance bipartisan momentum for infrastructure investment with "pork-barrel" spending's checkered political history. The data dump is an effort to provide transparency for what are now termed "community project funding" requests.

Democrats open to user fees for infrastructure deal

President Biden sits Thursday with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) as they discuss his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal. Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Some Senate Democrats are open to paying for a compromise infrastructure package by imposing user fees, including increasing the gas tax and raising money from electric car drivers through a vehicle-miles-traveled charge.

Why it matters: By inching toward the Republican position on pay-fors, some Democrats are bucking President Biden's push to offset his proposed $2.3 trillion plan by focusing only on raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

Progressive legal advocacy group spinning off from sponsor

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A leading progressive legal advocacy group is spinning off from the sprawling dark money network that seeded it, the group tells Axios.

Why it matters: Demand Justice's decision to separate from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a "fiscal sponsor" for scores of largely left-wing organizations, will provide the public with its first detailed look behind the curtain of the influential progressive nonprofit.