Blue-sky bioengineering on the DARPA drawing-board

Paul Raven @ 08-02-2010

If you’re looking for the sort of bat-shit Faustian gambles that form the back-bone of much military science fiction, following the news from the Pentagon’s science and tech division is like supergluing your lips to a firehose… and Wired’s DangerRoom blog is one of the better consumer-level sources to start with (if you don’t mind a bit of snark on the side).

Here’s DangerRoom‘s Katie Drummond on DARPA’s latest wheeze: immortal synthetic organisms with a built-in molecular kill-switch. SRSLY.

As part of its budget for the next year, Darpa is investing $6 million into a project called BioDesign, with the goal of eliminating “the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement.” The plan would assemble the latest bio-tech knowledge to come up with living, breathing creatures that are genetically engineered to “produce the intended biological effect.” Darpa wants the organisms to be fortified with molecules that bolster cell resistance to death, so that the lab-monsters can “ultimately be programmed to live indefinitely.”

Of course, Darpa’s got to prevent the super-species from being swayed to do enemy work — so they’ll encode loyalty right into DNA, by developing genetically programmed locks to create “tamper proof” cells. Plus, the synthetic organism will be traceable, using some kind of DNA manipulation, “similar to a serial number on a handgun.” And if that doesn’t work, don’t worry. In case Darpa’s plan somehow goes horribly awry, they’re also tossing in a last-resort, genetically-coded kill switch:

“Develop strategies to create a synthetic organism “self-destruct” option to be implemented upon nefarious removal of organism.”

The project comes as Darpa also plans to throw $20 million into a new synthetic biology program, and $7.5 million into “increasing by several decades the speed with which we sequence, analyze and functionally edit cellular genomes.”

That post goes on to quote a professor of biology, who’s keen to point out that DARPA’s view of evolution as a random string of events is going to prove a major stumbling block to any attempts to “improve” the process. As to what sort of genuine advantage over extant military technologies these synthetic organisms would have, the pertinent questions are absent, as are those dealing with the moral and ethical issues surrounding military meddling with fundamental biological processes, and the unexpected ways in which they might go wrong. And to hark back to an earlier post from today: would killing a bioengineered military organism be a legitimate act of war?

Also absent (but somewhat implicit, depending on your personal politics) are any observations that the world’s biggest military budget shows no sign of helping the US gain the upper hand against a nebulous and underfunded enemy armed predominantly with a fifty-year-old machine gun design and explosives expertise that’s a short step up from the Anarchist’s Cookbook… I’m all for wild ideas and blue-sky thinking, but I’m not sure they’re much use as a military panacea any more. The days of peace through superior firepower are long gone, and the more complex you make your weapons, the more likely they are to blow up in your face.

Robot hop

Tom James @ 15-09-2009

military-robotIn the latest of your monthly dose of robot drones coming to a theatre of war hopefully-some-distance-from-you we have news that DARPA have developed a remote military robot with the capability to jump over walls:

Most of the time, the shoebox-sized robot – which is being developed for the US military – uses its four wheels to get around.

But the Precision Urban Hopper can use a piston-actuated “leg” to launch it over obstacles such as walls or fences.

The robot could boost the capabilities of troops and special forces engaged in urban warfare, say researchers.

It occurs to me that in a couple of decades this kind of robot could have developed into a truly terrifying war machine. Imagine thousands of tank-sized versions of these, each containing a really pissed-off synthetic cat brain programmed to zap humans with a tactical high-energy laser.


[from the BBC, via h+ Magazine][image from h+ Magazine]

DARPA <3 Dune: miniature ornithopter in development

Paul Raven @ 03-07-2009

Chalk yet another one up to Frank Herbert; the DARPA people have just awarded a Phase II contract extension (whatever that means) to a company called AeroVironment so that they can continue developing their ‘Mercury’ Nano Air Vehicle ornithopter prototype. [via Hack-A-Day]

Ornithopters – which feature heavily in the Dune series – are aircraft that are propelled by flapping their wings like a bird rather than using rotors, propellors or jets. Check out the Mercury prototype in action:

Cube a breakthrough in smart matter

Tom James @ 07-06-2009

darpa_origami2DARPA are still at it busily inventing the all the science-fictional goodness we expect and deserve. Now they’re going in for programmable matter, of a similar flavour to that found in Fire upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, Accelerando by Charles Stross, and Dune: The Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. The goal of the project is to create matter that can “self-assemble or alter their shape, perform a function and then disassemble themselves.”:

One day, that could lead to “morphing aircraft and ground vehicles, uniforms that can alter themselves to be comfortable in any climate, and ’soft’ robots that flow like mercury through small openings to enter caves and bunker complexes.” A soldier could even reach into a can of unformed goop, and order up a custom-made tool or a “universal spare part.”

One team from Harvard is working on a kind of “generalized Rubik’s Cube” that can fold into all kinds of shapes. Another is trying to order large strands of synthetic DNA to bind together in a “molecular Velcro.” An MIT group is building “’self-folding origami’ machines that use specialized sheets of material with built-in actuators and data. These machines use cutting-edge mathematical theorems to fold themselves into virtually any three-dimensional object.

Very powerful and potentially gamechanging. Presumably if and when these become available to the general public they will have various restrictions built into them that will promptly be overcome and hacked origami-tools will become the ultimate criminal penknife.

On a more cheerful not this have wonderful applications in art and performance.

[from Danger Room]

DARPA flirting with transhumanism?

Paul Raven @ 11-05-2009

neuronsIt shouldn’t come as any great surprise, I guess; it’s not like DARPA doesn’t routinely churn out ideas with more than a tinge of the science fictional about them. But according to Wired’s DangerRoom blog, everyone’s favourite Pentagon agency has decided to investigate the human brain in the same reductionist/physicalist terms that transhumanist thinkers use to discuss the potential of mind uploading and simulation:

The idea behind Darpa’s latest venture, called “Physical Intelligence” (PI) is to prove, mathematically, that the human mind is nothing more than parts and energy. In other words, all brain activities — reasoning, emoting, processing sights and smells — derive from physical mechanisms at work, acting according to the principles of “thermodynamics in open systems.” Thermodynamics is founded on the conversion of energy into work and heat within a system (which could be anything from a test-tube solution to a planet). The processes can be summed up in formalized equations and laws, which are then used to describe how systems react to changes in their surroundings.

Now, the military wants a new equation: one that explains the human mind as a thermodynamic system. Once that’s done, they’re asking for “abiotic, self-organizing electronic and chemical systems” that display the PI principles. More than just computers that think, Darpa wants to re-envision how thought works — and then design computers whose thought processes are governed by the same laws as our own.

As pointed out, that’s a pretty tall order – even for DARPA, the world leader in tall orders. But if there’s one thing they’re good at, it’s throwing money and expertise at otherwise intractable problems… and in a young field of research like this one, there’s as much to be learned from failure as success. [image by LoreleiRanveig]

And there’s an added bonus – the tinfoil hat crowd have got a nice new conspiracy to gnaw on.

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