DARPA's New Biotech Division Wants To Create A Transhuman Future

The Pentagon's advanced research wing has announced its latest budget — and whoa, does DARPA ever have some ambitious plans for the future. Their new Biotech unit will be harnessing biology for national security, and dealing with everything from stopping plagues to building synthetic soldiers.

DARPA's commitment to cutting-edge innovation is unquestioned. The very essence of the defense agency is to make sure that U.S. military technology is more sophisticated than that of the nation's rivals. Among its many current initiatives, DARPA is working on advanced robotics, an artificial human brain, next-gen robotic aircraft, advanced prosthetics, and self-teaching computers (if anyone's going to build a recursively improving AI it's going to be DARPA).

In addition to these projects, DARPA has been busy at work on various biotechnology-related endeavors, but these attempts to date have lacked cohesion and focus. Looking to change this, DARPA has announced the creation of its Biological Technologies Office (BTO)— an effort to "explore the the increasingly dynamic intersection of biology and the physical sciences." The new division will expand upon its Defense Sciences (DSO) and Microsystems Technology (MTO) Offices.

Speaking to the U.S. House of Representatives last week, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said that, "Biology is nature's ultimate innovator, and any agency that hangs its hat on innovation would be foolish not to look to this master of networked complexity for inspiration and solutions."

Indeed, the new division will look into three incredibly promising research areas.

The Transhuman Soldier

A priority for DARPA is in restoring and maintaining the abilities of its warfighters. It wants to maintain peak soldier abilities and then restore those abilities as soon as possible after an injury. This will include the development of advanced prosthetics (featuring mind-controlled limbs), neural interfaces, the ability to survive blood loss, and even neurotechnological solutions to treat psychological trauma such as PTSD.

DARPA has already made tremendous strides in this area. Speaking to NPR's Marketplace, Prabhakar noted:

We had quadriplegic volunteers who agreed to have brain surgery, essentially have a small array placed on the surface of their brains, to pick up these neural signals for motor control, and then to use those to control these new, very sophisticated, robotic, prosthetic arms. In a sense we've opened a door — a connection between the human brain and the rest of the world. You can let your imagination go wild about where that's going to take us.

No doubt — many of these therapeutic technologies will be leveraged to enhance the capacities of soldiers. For example, work on memory impairments is leading to new insights into the brain's functioning. This will inform the development of technologies that will help soldiers interact with complex systems; future interfaces and tools will deliver information to soldiers in a way that's easier for them to understand (which is a growing problem — our systems are starting to operate faster than human comprehension). As Prabhakar says, there's "going to be a future where we start learning radically new ways to interact between the complexity of the human brain and the complexity of the world around us."

And with the introduction of its biochronicity program, DARPA could get a handle on human metabolism and aging, resulting in enhanced human combat performance and freakishly resilient soldiers (both in terms of resisting and recovering from physical injury and resistance to disease).

In addition, DARPA is looking to develop technologies that will identify and protect against infectious diseases, such as tools that will neutralize biological threats.

To Seek Out — And Create — New Life

The Pentagon also wants to dabble in artificial life as a way to create completely new biological systems, products, and materials. It's hoping to gain a better understanding of natural process and the underlying design rules that govern the behavior of biological systems, and then apply that knowledge to forward-engineer new systems and products with completely novel functionality.

This is particularly interesting news considering that biologists have recently built an artificial chromosome from scratch. Once refined, this biotechnology will allow for the creation of entirely new organisms, while adding new capacities (or "features") to existing ones — including humans. Imagine a soldier who never needs to sleep, requires minimal sustenance, or who has cat-like infrared vision. Artificial chromosomes could pave the way towards this kind of future — technologies that could eventually trickle into the civilian domain (much like the Internet and GPS has — both military innovations).

Interestingly, this meshes well with DARPA's existing BioDesign program which is studying the potential for synthetic organisms to be engineered for immortality and programmed with a kill switch that allows it to be turned off at any time. This recently prompted Motherboard's Meghan Neal to ask, "Why bother with mechanical robots when you can engineer fake human replicants to fight your battles? We haven't heard much about the Pentagon's would-be synthetic soldiers since then, but the BioDesign program got a bump from $11.4 to $19.3 million in next year's budget."

As part of the BTO initiative, DARPA's Living Foundries program will focus on:

...creating a biologically based manufacturing platform to provide rapid, scalable access to new materials with novel properties that can enable a new generation of mechanical, electrical, and optical products.

While its Chronicle of Lineage Indicative of Origins (CLIO) program aims to:

make biological engineering safer by establishing enduring control elements that protect against intentionally harmful genetic engineering, prevent illegal acquisition or misuse of proprietary strains, provide novel forensic tools to assist in the investigation of biological incidents, and allow responsible investigators to document compliance with safe biological manipulation practices.

Preventing Plagues

Smartly, DARPA is also looking into ways of preventing and mitigating the effects of a global pandemic. The complexity and unpredictability of outbreaks, it says, is a reflection of our poor understanding of the dynamics involved. In addition, the research agency wants to study larger biological and ecological phenomena, including population-level effects of relevance to agriculture and food security.

With its launch of BTO, DARPA says it also wants to consider the implications of what it's doing. To that end, DARPA will periodically converse with experts in these issues to discuss relevant ethical, legal, and social issues.

[ DARPA ]

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