Darpa: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. For nearly 50 years, Darpa has engineered technological breakthroughs from the Internet to stealth jets. But in the early 1990s, as military strategists started worrying about how to defend against germ weapons, the agency began to get interested in biology. “The future was a scary place, the more we looked at it,” says Michael Goldblatt, former head of Darpa’s Defense Sciences Office. “We wanted to learn the capabilities of nature before others taught them to us.”Have I mentioned lately how much I love Darpa? Now they are getting into human augmentation projects and I am going to have to love them even more.
By 2001, military strategists had determined that the best way to deal with emerging transnational threats was with small groups of fast-moving soldiers, not hulking pieces of military hardware. But small groups rarely travel with medics — they have to be hardy enough to survive on their own. So what goes on in Grahn’s dank little lab at Stanford is part of a much larger push to radically improve the performance, mental capacity, and resilience of American troops — to let them run harder and longer, operate without sleep, overcome deadly injury, and tap the potential of their unconscious minds.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency was founded in 1958 (the D was added in 1972) as a place to noodle around on ideas too big, or too far out, for the Cold War military-industrial complex. The results can sometimes be spectacular failures (nuclear hand grenade, anyone?). But Darpa has also pushed the development of some things that have become part of the fabric of military and civilian life: wearable computers, long-range drone aircraft, night vision, even the M16 rifle and the computer mouse.
A portable transcranial magnetic stimulator to counter fatigue? Nice.
Researchers using EEG to see neural spikes that appear in analysts' brains just before they consciously register seeing a target in a satellite map? Excellent.
USDA researchers trying to find out how swine digest cellulose so they could upgrade the bacteria in our stomachs to process more of our food or eat otherwise inedible items? Fantastic.
I was writing before about how I want to tweak the bacteria living in my stomach so that I could do such things. Who needs to convert cellulose into ethanol, when it could just be turned into people food instead?
If you share the love of Darpa you might want to check out this new Wired Defense Blog.