Pentagon biologists from DARPA promise to defeat death, spawn synthetic replicants and provide the American army with rows of disabled cyborgs
In early April, the United States Agency for Advanced Defense Research and Development (DARPA, Pentagon’s leading research wing) announced the opening of a new biotechnology division, the Biotechnology Development Office. His task is to place biology at the service of national security, starting with a victory over epidemics and ending with the creation of synthetic soldiers. At the same time, the ministry’s budget for the next fiscal year, $ 2,9 billion, was announced.
The status of DARPA as the main forge of innovation is indisputable. The essence of the agency is to constantly ensure that American military technology will always be more advanced than its competitors. Here are just some of the recent initiatives of the agency: the creation of humanoid ATLAS robots and many other types of robotics; smart prostheses that will convey these tactile sensations; programming of artificial neural networks - in fact, computers based on the cognitive functions of the human brain. Against the background of these technological wonders, taken as if to exactly the same pages as the classic cyberpunk novels of the eighties, the design of just some kind of self-learning supercomputer is not surprising. If in the future they create a full-fledged artificial intelligence, it will not be made by IT corporations, but by the dark geniuses of the Pentagon (which, by the way, are the progenitors of the Internet).
DARPA has previously paid due attention to biotechnology, but so far they have not had a special department that would coordinate all the research in this interdisciplinary field. This is precisely what the Biotechnology Development Board, designed to “explore the increasingly dynamic intersections of biology and physics”, is called to correct.
DARPA Director Arathi Prabhakar, speaking at the House of Representatives in late March, said that “biology is the ultimate innovator of nature, and for any agency that relies on innovation, it would be foolish not to contact this master of complex relationships for inspiration and clues.
“Today biology takes its place among the basic sciences, representing the future of defense technologies ... The programs of the biotechnological office lie in a wide range: from individual cells to organisms and their populations; from the time with which the nerve signal is transmitted, to the time with which the new sneeze virus sneezes over the entire planet. The biotechnology office will study the extremely complex mechanisms of natural processes and will demonstrate that they can be used for national defense, ”says a press release from DARPA.
“Russian Planet” got acquainted with the most promising programs of the new department department.
Ah, do not say: "Blood from the wound." This is wild!
One of the priorities of the biotechnology office is the high-tech rehabilitation of US soldiers after injuries of various types. According to the Institute of Surgical Studies of the US Army, the main cause of death for soldiers on the battlefield is blood loss. Several DARPA studies are designed to solve this problem. The military still has nothing more perfect than a simple gauze bandage to stop the bleeding. Its effectiveness is extremely low, because if the blood does not stop, the bandage has to be changed almost immediately. There is no possibility at all to stop latent bleeding on the spot. Therefore, many soldiers die not only on the battlefield, but also in transport on the way to the medical unit.
Recently, a startup company RevMedx announced a modified syringe that fills the wound area with chitosan centimeter sponges that swell and block the bleeding. But this only stops external bleeding. DARPA specialists went further and announced the creation of the so-called "stasis system" - so far it is only known that it is a "foam material" that stops hemorrhage even into the abdominal cavity. The US Sanitary Inspectorate should soon approve the first prototype of a portable device for the injection of a substance.
Even if blood loss can not be avoided, another development department will make it not so life-threatening, saving the military from the threat of hypoxia caused by bleeding. Scientists are working on a drug based on hydrogen sulfide, the injection of which slows down the physiological processes taking place in the body. During animal testing, it was found that hydrogen sulfide reduces the organ's need for oxygen, the acute shortage of which causes blood loss. Injection of such a substance will significantly prolong the time that a fighter can spend after a deadly loss of blood right on the battlefield, waiting for a transfusion. Thus, they hope in DARPA that the soldier will be able to make an injection on his own, enter a “hibernation-like state,” and wait on medical aid for up to a few days.
The agency’s employees are well aware of the almost limitless possibilities offered by the US authorities and do not suffer from false modesty. For example, the program for the development of advanced prostheses without utaek called - "Revolutionization of prosthetics." It was launched in 2006 year, but now it is completely under the control of the biotechnology office.
All this time, researchers have been busy designing prosthetic hands, which are much more difficult from medical and engineering points of view than artificial legs. One of the revolutionary prostheses - Arm System Gen-3 - has already been legalized by the Department of Health Supervision. As stated on the website of the department, these "advanced mechatronic limbs" were the first to approach the functionality of real human hands. The objectives of the program are even more challenging than the name. And DARPA does not conceal them at all: in the future there will be no disabled veterans in the United States, but there will be disabled people in the ranks - just robotic ones.
“Within the framework of the“ Revolutionization of Prosthetics ”, the functionality of upper limb prostheses is improved, so that one day the soldiers who have lost their arms could return to the service,” the program description says.
Among the specific tasks is the creation of mind-controlled prostheses and neurocomputer interfaces for amputees and paralytics. On the air of NPR's Marketplace 31 March, Arathi Prabhakar said that biotechnologists have already made a huge step in this area. The achievements of recent years in the technology of cortical microelectrodes have made the connection between the nervous system and cybernetic body parts so strong that thought-driven prostheses gradually enter into daily use, and patients who have already cooperated use the Pentagon “reliable neural interface system”. Future research "will improve the potential of peripheral interfaces in order to process even more information about limb management, which will provide amputee with more functionality." Neuroscientists are working to ensure that the signal goes in both directions - that the prosthesis is not only controlled by the mind, but he himself sent tactile signals back to the nervous system, causing a feeling of genuine physical touch.
Disabled with prosthetic roborukami. Photo: DARPA
“We have volunteers with paralysis of all four limbs who have agreed to brain surgery. We are talking about placing a chip on the cortex, which controls the neurons of the motor zone and redirects them to control new, highly sophisticated prosthetic roborooks. In a sense, we opened the door - the connection between the human brain and the rest of the world. Unleash your imagination to see how far this will allow us to go, ”said the director of DARPA.
A separate program is dedicated to the restoration of memory. According to physicians, since 2000, more than 270, thousands of American soldiers received head injuries of varying complexity, which led to a worsening or complete dysfunction of working memory. Despite the scale of the problem, there are no effective treatments now. To reclaim their memory, the biotechnology office is working on a multidisciplinary neurotechnology that combines "data processing, mathematical modeling and the latest interfaces." The result should be an “implantable neural device,” which will return memory to soldiers through the neurostimulation of certain areas of the brain.
Another initiative is aimed at getting rid of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, “Vietnamese syndrome”), which is extremely common among soldiers who have been fighting. In the best cases, it leads to depression and migraines, in the worst - to outbreaks of aggression among the military who returned to their homeland, or suicide. Modern approaches - drugs and psychotherapy - can only alleviate the worst symptoms of this severe mental syndrome. Military doctors are hoping to completely defeat PTSD, too, by implanting a neurostimulator into the brain.
As part of its neuro research, DARPA consults (at least offers to believe in it) with an expert panel on ethical, legal and social implications. Prabhakar does not exclude that some of these studies will be directed not only at rehabilitation, but also at modifying the brain of healthy fighters.
“If we figure out how the brain interacts with complex systems, perhaps we will understand exactly how to provide information to a person so that he can assimilate it better. This will be the future in which we will begin to learn radically new ways of interaction between the complexity of the human brain and the complexity of the world around us, ”says the head of the innovation agency.
The man-machine interfaces can be quite adapted to the control of robots. And if today engineers are developing a mind-controlled civilian quadcopter, then why don’t we expect from DARPA sooner or later military drones driven via neutro interfaces?
And created a replicant from the ashes of synthetic
The agency relies on the next generation of defense technologies to take an example from natural, biological life. Synthetic biology will become one of the most important areas of work for the biotechnology office - the agency expects to launch a kind of insane genetic plant for the production of previously never-existing biological matters with unexplored properties based on a cocktail of living cells, proteins and DNA. The goal is to create, firstly, artificial, but living super materials that will be used for the next generation of mechanical and electrical gadgets, and secondly, to literally create new life forms with functionality that is hard to imagine at the moment. But it sounds not so fantastic, considering that at the end of March, scientists announced the creation of the first stories humanity synthetic "designer" chromosome.
A significant part of the personnel of the newly opened unit was bioengineers. Since “biological engineering is a powerful technology capable of affecting many areas” of human life, Pentagon biologists intend to carefully prepare a theoretical basis - gradually “transform biology into engineering practice, preparing tools, technologies, methodologies and infrastructure”. As part of the bioengineering programs in the laboratories, the latest developments in the field of synthetic biology, genomics and proteomics are applied, which contribute to the high safety of research and the prevention of "unwanted release of microorganisms". Apparently, in DAPRA heard about the dangers of a zombie apocalypse.
Despite all the precautions, bioengineers have announced more than ambitious projects. One of the most mysterious programs takes place under the working title Biochronicity. According to bioengineers, although “biological clocks regulate almost all functions in the human body,” there is still no clear idea of how they affect the cell cycle, metabolism, aging, and cell death. Apparently, the department will aggravate the metabolism and aging of a person, putting them under control and repeatedly increasing the combat capability and endurance of the soldiers - both in terms of regeneration after physical injuries, and immunity to disease.
A few years ago, the DARPA Biodesign program, in which the Pentagon creates as many immortal synthetic creatures, already made a noise. The goal is to overcome the “randomness of evolution”: “within the framework of“ Biodesign ”, a system of engineering methods is used in combination with biotechnology and synthetic chemical technology in order to create new useful attributes. Biodesign will reduce the unpredictability of natural evolutionary development through genetic engineering and molecular biology. This area includes artificially defined molecular reactions that increase resistance to cell death signals (...). ” In the event that the agency’s plan goes awry in the most threatening scenario, as is usually the case in horror, the created creatures have a special trigger molecule for self-destruction, which can be activated remotely. As the author of the tekhnoblog Motherboard writes, “why are mechanical robots needed, when you can create a replicant for participation in wars? We have not heard much about potential Pentagon synthetic soldiers, but the next year, $ 19,3 million was allocated to the Biodesign program. ”
A world without disease
The agency’s epidemiological wing will look for ways to prevent epidemics and mitigate the effects of a hypothetical deadly global pandemic (another popular plot of science fiction disaster films). Scientists believe that the unpredictability of disease outbreaks is a clear sign of our poor understanding of the dynamics of the emergence and spread of epidemics.
According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the United States, of all the pathogens 20% registered over the past 44 years, are RNA viruses. They are characterized by an extremely high mutation rate, which allows them to adapt to a changing environment, as happened in the case of a pandemic of the H1N1 virus (“swine flu”) in the 2009 year. In addition, even the most powerful antibiotics can become useless, as infections gradually get drug resistance, as is the case with the invincible gonorrhea strain.
The program with the sonorous name "Prophecy" studies the evolution of viruses to predict future viral mutations. The ultimate goal is the creation of “proactive” drugs and vaccines against diseases that may threaten humanity in the future. Biologists are going to predict the viral evolution, of course, not on mathematical models, but quite experimentally. In fact, the agency will be engaged in the breeding of viruses. Dangerous pathogens will be grown in the laboratory and diagnose all stages of mutations through which they pass. Based on this information, predictions will be possible in which direction a particular disease will evolve. Virologists modestly notice that in the laboratory they will try to repeat only those “viral mutations that have already occurred naturally and are documented,” probably to convince them that they will not accidentally create a virus that does not even exist on the planet in their natural environment. .
Answering the question, what is the biotech office of the “Holy Grail”, the director of DARPA summed up: “This is a new class of materials with properties that we would never have received before. This is a new way of interacting with the human brain and solving the secrets of cognitive functions. And we are confident that there are already technologies that will allow the advance of the spread of infectious diseases. ”