by Patrick Tucker
April 01, 2014
controlling a prosthetic arm during a visit to
tells Defense One that
cutting-edge biology research
is the future of national security,
and how we'll get our
Star Trek tricorders...
The office will cover everything from brewing up tomorrow's bioweapon detectors and connecting humans to computers to designing entirely new types of super-strong living materials that could form the basis of future devices.
Here are the key areas in
As a computer, it performs 10,000 trillion operations per second. That's about one third as fast as the Chinese Tianhe-2 Super computer, which can perform 33,860 trillion calculations per second.
the human brain does
it's calculating with just 20 watts of power. Tianhe-2 needs 24
Our ability to use brain signaling to control devices has grown at a similar pace, but getting brain material to mesh with sensors and electronics is no simple matter.
A DARPA program, Revolutionizing Prosthetics, to better help veterans with amputated limbs control prosthetic legs and arms with brain signals was announced in 2009 but only very recently began to bear fruit.
Last year, researchers from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago demonstrated a cybernetic arm prosthetic that functions like something straight out of RoboCop.
The BTO will oversee a
variety of programs aimed at understanding both the hardware and the
software of the human brain.
So while we still haven't
been able to connect a prosthetic directly to the brain, researchers
have achieved much better integration with prosthetics and nerves.
The agency's Cortical Processor program, with a $2.3 million FY 2015 budget request, seeks to recreate in software the brain's capability to take in lots of incoming stimuli from sensory organs and spit out recognized patterns.
One far off potential application for the agency's brain research is neural-controlled piloting of drones or better steering for manned aircraft via neurological feedback, which could build off of current research using electroencephalography, or EEG, to pilot robots.
EEG is a nonsurgical
method for recording the brain's electromagnetic signals via a cap
that's worn over the skull. Those signals are powerful enough to
steer some robots.
In 2012, Chinese researchers at Zhejiang University used EEG to pilot a small consumer UAV.
These are the sorts of incremental research breakthroughs that seem to suggest that brain-controlled quad-copters are literally hovering around the corner.
But EEG signals are too crude to do brain-based piloting in real time combat operations. Useful gains in this area will require getting not just powerful but more precise signals, and that means getting hot electronics closer to the brain.
Unfortunately, soft and delicate brain tissue does not easily mix with circuits. It's a technical and materials challenge of enormous complexity, but hardly outside of the realm of possibility.
A group of researchers
recently unveiled a neural probe that can be
integrated on the brain with little damage to cellular structures.
She says that current research represents "a door opening" into new applications.
In the near term, a fuller understanding of our three-pound thinking organ would allow for improved situational awareness on the battlefield and better decision-making in life or death environments.
One example of that is the 1,000 Molecules program, part of DARPA's Living Foundries initiative, which is focused on,
These new materials would allow for a,
Bioengineered materials derived from living components like lipids and proteins would be several times more diverse and functional than designs based on more traditional approaches to chemistry.
Learning to harness the building blocks of life could allow for living materials that are stronger, more flexible, more durable and cheaper than anything available today.
Those new materials could
make their way into battlefield armor or even electronic components.
A group of researchers
from the U.S. and U.K. recently announced the creation of the
first artificial chromosome, derived from piecing together
273,871 separate DNA nucleotides from yeast, thus achieving a key
step in the potential development of designer chromosomes or even
DARPA wants it...
Rapidly spreading diseases, whether as a result of biological attack or a naturally-occurring epidemic, present a grave and rising national security threat.
previously discussed, a highly-lethal flu
pandemic (news from April 2014...!) could result in as many as 150 million deaths.
The ability to diagnose infections on site, perhaps with a single, handheld device, and then report the results immediately and globally could allow researchers to quickly identify the unique genetic makeup of emerging illnesses.
That could help them to,
The DARPA program is called Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics, or ADEPT, and is one example of the effort to conquer biological threats.
The agency isn't alone in moving to build more rapid and deployable diagnostic capabilities.
Qualcomm and the X Prize Foundation are sponsoring a $10 million dollar competition to build a handheld diagnostic device. We don't have to wait for Bones to show before realizing the benefits of the research effort.
Today, health workers in
Saudi Arabia are already using findings from DARPA's
epidemiology-funded research to stay ahead of the Middle East
respiratory syndrome coronavirus or