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Biology is Technology — DARPA is Back in the Game With A Big Vision and It Is H+

Introduction

DARPA, the Defense Research Projects Agency, is perhaps best known for its role as progenitors of the computer networking and the Internet. Formed in the wake of the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of Sputnik, DARPA’s objective was to ensure that the United States would avoid technological surprises in the future. This role was later expanded to causing technological surprises as well.

And although DARPA is and has been the leading source of funding for artificial intelligence and a number of other transhumanist projects, they’ve been missing in action for a while. Nothing DARPA has worked on since seems to have had the societal impact of the invention of the Internet. But that is about to change.

The current director of DARPA is Dr. Arati Prabhakar. She is the second female director of the organization, following the previous and controversial director Regina Dugan who left the government to work at Google. The return to big visions and big adventures was apparent and in stark contrast to Dugan’s leadership of the organization.

Quoted in WIRED, Dugan had, for example, stated that “There is a time and a place for daydreaming. But it is not at DARPA,” and she told a congressional panel in March 2011, “Darpa is not the place of dreamlike musings or fantasies, not a place for self-indulging in wishes and hopes. DARPA is a place of doing.”

Those days are gone. DARPA’s new vision is simply to revolutionize the human situation and it is fully transhumanist in its approach.

The Biological Technologies Office or BTO was announced with little fanfare in the spring of 2014. This announcement didn’t get that much attention, perhaps because the press release announcing the BTO was published on April Fool’s Day.

But DARPA is determined to turn that around, and to help make that happen, they held a two day event in the SIlicon Valley area to facilitate and communicate about radical changes ahead in the area of biotechnologies. Invitees included some of the top biotechnology scientists in the world. And the audience was a mixed group of scientists, engineers, inventors, investors, futurists, along with a handful of government contractors and military personnel.

 

Biology is Technology

I was lucky to be invited to this event because although I spend a large amount of time researching technology and science as related to the future, nothing prepared me for the scope of the DARPA vision. The ostensible purpose of the two day meeting was to introduce the DARPA Biotechnology Program Office and to connect program managers with innovators, investors, and scientists working in biotechnology and related disciplines. But really they were here to shake things up.

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DARPA chief Dr. Arati Prabhakar interviewed GE’s Sue Siegel

Opening the Biology Is Technology (BiT) event was DARPA Director Dr. Arati Prabhakar. Dr. Prabhakar’s presence at this meeting demonstrates how serious DARPA is about this effort, and one imagines that she was also in California to support President Obama’s Cybersecurity Summit with top leaders of the computer industry.

Dr. Prabhakar interviewed GE’s Sue Siegel about innovation and GE’s role in creating the future. This was a freewheeling conversation in which Ms. Siegel turned the tables and interviewed Dr. Prabhakar instead. What followed was an outstanding introduction to the proactionary approach to research and development, or in DARPA’s language, preventing surprises by creating your own.

Dr. Prabhakar clearly set up the DARPA’s latest incarnation as a return to the big vision, swing for the fences approach. She discussed DARPA’s approach to managing risks while creating high impact technologies. In this vision, DARPA’s role is to help scientists and innovators to “remove early risk” which might prevent them from obtaining investment and bringing novel ideas to market. DARPA was described by one presenter as a “always friendly, but somewhat crazy rich uncle” and they made it clear that they were going to put a fair bit of money behind these ideas.

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BTO Lead Dr. Geoff Ling

This meeting was focused around the launch of the new program office, the Biotechnology Program Office, although other program managers were present. The BTO is headed Dr. Geoff Ling who is a practicing Army medical doctor. Dr. Ling is an energetic spokesman for the DARPA vision and the BTO. And it is notable that it is an M.D. that is in charge of this effort because many of the developments being undertaken by the BTO are simply going to revolutionize the practice of medicine as we know it today. With the energetic Dr. Ling in charge, you can imagine it getting done.

Dr. Ling portrayed DARPA’s ambitious goals and set out what was one of the clearest presentations of the proactionary principle which I have heard. But that was just the opening volley; DARPA is going full on H+.

Following the inspirational presentation by Dr. Ling, the individual program managers had a chance to present their projects.

The first Program Manager to present, Phillip Alvelda, opened the event with his mind blowing project to develop a working “cortical modem”. What is a cortical modem you ask? Quite simply it is a direct neural interface that will allow for the visual display of information without the use of glasses or goggles. I was largely at this event to learn about this project and I wasn’t disappointed.

Leveraging the work of Karl Deisseroth in the area of optogenetics, the cortical modem project aims to build a low cost neural interface based display device. The short term goal of the project is the development of a device about the size of two stacked nickels with a cost of goods on the order of $10 which would enable a simple visual display via a direct interface to the visual cortex with the visual fidelity of something like an early LED digital clock.

The implications of this project are astounding.

Consider a more advanced version of the device capable of high fidelity visual display. First, this technology could be used to restore sensory function to individuals who simply can’t be treated with current approaches. Second, the device could replace all virtual reality and augmented reality displays. Bypassing the visual sensory system entirely, a cortical modem can directly display into the visual cortex enabling a sort of virtual overlay on the real world. Moreover, the optogenetics approach allows both reading and writing of information. So we can imagine at least a device in which virtual objects appear well integrated into our perceived world. Beyond this, a working cortical modem would enable electronic telepathy and telekinesis. The cortical modem is a real world version of the science fiction neural interfaces envisioned by writers such as William Gibson and more recently Ramez Naam.

To the extent that it is real, the cortical modem is still a crude device. This isn’t going to give you a high fidelity augmented reality display soon. And since the current approach is based in optogenetics, it requires a  genetic alteration of the DNA in your neurons. The health implications are unknown, and this research is currently limited to work with animal models. Specifically discussed was a real time imaging of the zebrafish brain with about 85,000 neurons.

Notably, while i was live blogging the event one h+ Magazine reader volunteered to undergo this possibly dangerous genetic procedure in exchange for early access to a cortical modem. A fact which I later got to mention directly to Dr. Prabhakar at the reception afterwards.

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Cortical Modem Concept

Following the astounding cortical modem presentation, Dr. Dan Wattendorf presented DARPA’s efforts to get in front of and prevent disease outbreaks such as the recent crisis with ebola in Africa. This was a repeated theme throughout the event. DARPA is clearly recognizing the need to avoid “technological surprises” from nature as well as from nations. It is widely recognized that the current technology for dealing with novel disease outbreaks, the so called “post antibiotic” era, and bioweapons requires entirely new strategies for detection and rapid response to communicable illnesses. As an example, the ebola vaccine currently being considered for use has been in development for decades. Moreover, only a small number of vaccines exists even for known diseases. A novel threat might provide only weeks or months to respond however. Clearly new approaches are needed in both detection of disease outbreaks and response to them. Perhaps most interesting to me here was the discussion of transient gene therapies where an intervention that alters an organism’s DNA but which “turn off” after some time period or event.

Dr. Jack Newman Chief Science Officer at Amyris and board member of the Biobricks Foundation followed. Jack has recently joined DARPA as a program manager himself and he talked about Amyris’ work with producing useful materials from bio-engineered yeast. This project funded under DARPA’s Living Foundries program is just one of a number of efforts seeking to create novel materials and production processes. Dr. Newman presented a view into the programming of living systems using Amyris software that was quite interesting.

This provided a natural segue to program manager Alicia Jackson’s presentation on the broader Living Foundries program which promises to leverage the synthetic and functional capabilities of biology to create biologically-based manufacturing platforms to provide access to new materials, capabilities and manufacturing paradigms based in biology and synthetic biology. Imagine materials that self assemble, heal, and adapt to their changing environment as biological systems do. The program currently focuses on compressing the biological design-build-test-learn cycle by at least 10 times in both time and cost, while simultaneously increasing the complexity of systems that are created. The second phase of the program builds on these advancements and tools to create a scalable, integrated, rapid design and prototyping infrastructure for the engineering of biology.

Following this, a more casual presentation, a “fireside” chat between famed geneticist Dr. George Church and technology historian George Dyson. This chat rambled a bit and started off slowly. But once it got going, Church laid out his vision of engineering ecosystems using “gene drives” and throughout a variety of remarks that were of interest. For example, he expressed skepticism about “longevity” research as compared with “age reversal” techniques. GDF 11 got a mention. He also discussed the observation of genetic changes in cells grown outside of the body for example in so called “printed” organs, and discussed his alternative approach of growing human donor organs in transgenic pigs. He suggested the real possibility of enhancing human intelligence through genetic techniques and pointed to the complete molecular description of living systems as a goal.

This led into another amazing presentation from new DARPA program manager Julian Sanchez who is leading DARPA’s Human-machine symbiosis group which is developing many of the groundbreaking prosthetics such as mind controlled limbs which have recently been in the news. DARPA’s investment in advanced limb prosthetics has already delivered an FDA-approved device but “cognitive prosthetics” are next. DARPA is developing hardware and software to overcome the memory deficits and neuropsychiatric illnesses afflicting returning veterans for example.

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Man with DARPA funded prosthetic drinks from water bottle

While there wasn’t much shown regarding applying these ideas to healthy individuals or combat systems, we can assume that this work is underway. One patient was shown employing a neural interface to fly a simulated aircraft for example. And DARPA is supposedly working towards a system that would allow one person to pilot multiple vehicles by thought alone. The approach is bigger than just thought controlled drones however, because it focuses on creating symbiosis which is to ensure a mutual benefit to both partners in a relationship. The potential of this idea is often overlooked and misunderstood in conversations about machine intelligence for example.

Together with the cortical modem, these devices promise to revolutionize human abilities to repair ourselves, extend ourselves, communicate and indeed they will eventually and inevitably alter what it means to be human. Where is the boundary between self and other if we can directly share thoughts, dreams, emotions, and ideas? When we can experience not only the thoughts but feelings of someone else? How will direct neural access to knowledge change education and work? These technologies raise many questions for which we do not yet have answers.

Dr. Sanchez closed by calling on members of the audience to “come to DARPA and change the world” a call which didn’t ring hollow by this point. And things were just getting started.

This statement was made repeatedly. DARPA is open for business and looking for collaborators to work with. They’re building teams that work across subjects, disciplines and communities. They seek to build a community of interest aimed at tackling some of mankind’s greatest challenges, including things like curing communicable diseases and reversing ecosystem collapse. DARPA has some unique instruments and capabilities to offer anyone developing radical technological ideas and they want you to know about them. They openly invited the audience to submit abstracts for research ideas and promised that every email they receive would be answered “at least once”.

Several different DARPA performers also gave presentations. These are the people that DARPA has hired under contract to actually do the work and the presentations were a pretty heady and eclectic mix ranging from deep science to the unusual and on to the profound. Dr.Michel M. Maharbiz of UC Berkeley who is developing “neural dust” and has done controversial work with insect cyborgs. Saul Griffith of Otherlab presented the farthest ranging talk including his work with computer controlled inflatables which includes development of exoskeleton concepts, pneumatic sun trackers for low cost solar power applications, and a life sized robotic inflatable elephant he made for his daughter. I was also intrigued by a toy they had designed that was a universal constructor. He also had some very interesting analysis of the world’s energy production and utilization, showing areas where DARPA (and anyone else interested) could make the biggest difference to slow climate change.

How about curing all known and even unknown communicable diseases? Exploring “post pathogen medicine” is an effort in which DARPA is working to identify “unlikely heros”, those individuals with surprising  resilience or resistance to dangerous diseases. The idea is to apply big data analytics to analyze data from a large number of existing scientific analyses that might hide data indicating genetic markers for immunity or disease resistance in individuals.

Karl Deisseroth presented his work with optogenetics and his newer techniques for transforming neural tissue into a clear gel that can be imaged. He presented some impressive images from this work and his new unpublished imaging technique called “Swift 3D”. The resulting images are real-time maps of neural events. For example, Dr. Deisseroth presented visual representations of mouse thoughts from one controlled experiment.

Beyond reading mids, DARPA’s BiT programs are also looking to revolutionize the practice of biology and science in general. Dr. Stephen Friend presented Sage Networks a science oriented social sharing and collaboration platform which radically realigns the practices of scientific publication and data sharing. Apart from providing a standardized platform for publishing annotated bioscience datasets, the system requires users to make their data available to other researchers while still preserving their ability to get credit for original ideas and work. This project is important and could see application elsewhere outside of the biosciences. One member of the audience was so impressed with this idea she was compelled to comment.

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Intestines on a Chip

More directly, DARPA seeks to revolutionize the day to day practice of biotechnology and drug development. A series of “organs on a chip” was presented. These devices allow cultures of cells from an individual’s organs to be grown and treated with medications to assess effectiveness and possible side effects without the need to use an animal model or test on a live human subject. While they haven’t replicated every human organ, they did have a “gut on a chip” shown here. These little chips are flexible and kind of artistic actually. The company Emulate had a representative explaining the technology at the reception after the first day of the event. This is just one of several projects in which DARPA is seeking to understand the effects of drugs including adverse side effects in novel ways. The eventual hope is to shorten time to market while also radically lowering the costs of new medications.

Microfluidics — making tiny droplets

Another impressive series of developments was presented in the area of microfluidics. These developments consist of a set of technologies for creating very small droplets, and various mechanisms for manipulating, and experimenting on these tiny drops. Currently the practice of bioscience experimentation is largely performed by human postdocs who spend thousands of hours pipetting, mixing, and carefully measuring results. But using microfluidics and a series of intricate valves, nozzles, and so on, many of these procedures can be automated and radically sped up.

The audience got a chance to mix with the DARPA program managers after the event at a reception where some of DARPA’s projects were presented in a hands on environment. I had a brief conversation with Dr. Prabhakar who mentioned that she was aware of Humanity+ and transhumanism more generally. She was excited to have us involved, but also expressed some dismay at the political aspect of the transhumanist movement.

Well known Silicon Valley venture capitalist, rocketeer, transhumanist, and super guy Steve Jurvetson was spotted “high fiving” a DARPA funded telepresence robot developed at Johns Hopkins APL at the reception.

The robot operates via a head mounted display which places the wearer into the robot’s “head” and two instrumented gloves which give the wearer control over the robot’s dexterous human like hands. The hands get a bit hot due to the motors that move them however, so a fist bump is going to be prefered over a handshake with this guy.

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DARPA’s Inner Buddha

a photo of a child holding hands with a prosthetic hand

AT the two day BiT event, it was revealed that DARPA hasn’t just gone full on transhumanist, they’re full Buddha.

The goal of his project as presented by one of the project investigators, Dr. Eddie Chang of the University of California at San Francisco, during day two’s “Lightning Round” , was nothing less than eliminating human suffering.

Curing communicable diseases and prosthetics were the top of the list day one.

But Dr. Chang was talking about curing a deeper inner injury, the sort of thing that causes mental illness, depression, and intractable PTSD;  problems which military veterans notably suffer disproportionately.

The first stage of the project is underway and working with patients who are already undergoing brain surgery for intractable epilepsy. Four individuals so far have had their detailed neural patterns recorded 24 hours a day for ten days using an implanted device. The resulting neural map is at the millimeter and millisecond level and is correlated with other information about the patient’s mood and physiological state.

In another program, ElectRX, DARPA is investigating the use of similar neural stimulation techniques to promote healing of the body from injuries and disease. In both cases the emphasis isn’t  on working around or bypassing damage, but using electrical stimulation to promote healing and repair. DARPA wants to heal you. Dr. Chang stated, for example, that the success of his project wouldn’t be marked by the date of the first implanted device, but rather the date of the first removal.

Summary

Creating novel industrial processes to reduce climate change? DARPA had that covered too. So while Dr. Ling made sure to remind the audience up front that this was all about supporting warfighters, it was impossible to not consider the deeper implications of what was being presented as the event proceeeded.

The reality is that the true DARPA mission isn’t just about war. A happier, more secure and sustainable world is the best possible security for the United States, a fact that DARPA’s leaders seemingly recognize at the moment.  And so DARPA is developing technologies for rapid identification of communicable diseases, restoring lost biological functions, producing materials and developing novel industrial processes to prevent slow and reverse climate change, save ecosystems and more.

And DARPA’s next revolution, biology is technology, is something even bigger than the Internet. They’re out to revolutionize the practice and products of bio-science and along the way they are re-defining what it will mean to be human. Will we alter our biology to enable direct mind to mind communication? Can we extend our immune system into the world to cure all communicable diseases? Can we cure and repair the most damaging and persistent mental illnesses?

In this amazing two day event, DARPA opened the door to a wider public collaboration and conversation about these amazing ideas.

A second event is planned for New York City in June and video of the February presentations will be available online according to DARPA representatives at the event. I will update this story with videos when they are available.