Ch.2: Be All You Can Be
Be All You Can Be
The future is already here;
it’s just not evenly distributed.
Nonetheless, the idea of Gina going skiing is as astounding as is her
ambition to someday go skydiving. Because of what Gina casually refers
to as “medical malpractice,” she’s in a wheelchair for what is projected to
be the rest of her life. “I have cerebral palsy. It’s a brain injury. It can be
caused by a trauma or by a lack of oxygen to the brain,” she says of her
birth. “I think I was pretty much a combination of both. Most of the kids
with cerebral palsy are also born premature. I was, yes—by, like, two
It’s not like a spinal cord injury, she explains, which paralyzed the late
Superman actor Christopher Reeve after he was thrown from his horse,
landing on his head. It’s not like diabetes, which can appear when you’re
older. Nor is it like muscular dystrophy, which can kill the young. Gina
can live long, but with lasting difficulties. “Part of the reason why cerebral
palsy patients have development difficulty is because I didn’t even
start crawling until I was like maybe one or two, which meant that I
didn’t start, like, picking up things until that age,” she says. “Doctors say
whether you know it or not, like when you’re picking up stuff, your brain
is learning how to count little by little. So since you don’t start that until
you’re older, you can’t really catch up.
“It’s something that I’ve learned to compensate for. Like, I read at
the speed of a fifth-grader. I can understand everything that a college
sophomore should understand, but I can’t read it quickly. It just takes me
longer.” She speaks and types fluidly, although sometimes her writing
needs editing because she can put sentences in the wrong order without
recognizing it. Her handshake is soft, revealing low muscle tone. She
needs help putting a clip on her shirt.
Gina’s father, Michael Goldblatt, did not want her ever to think that she
should be conquered by her limitations. So she became a pioneer. He enrolled
her in public schools in affluent Oak Brook, outside Chicago, where
they lived. She was the first seriously handicapped person to be fully mainstreamed
at any of these schools. Her father was so determined that she be
treated like everyone else that he even ran for the local school board and
won. Nonetheless, Gina remembers the experience as “horrible.”
“I had a teacher who would tell me that I didn’t deserve to be in her
class. And when I asked her why, the only reason she could come up with
was ‘Because you’re in a wheelchair and have a disability.’ ” This was a
Spanish honors class her freshman year in high school. Gina is fluent in
Spanish, as is her patrician Mexican-born mother, Marta. “I was just,
like, ‘Okay, fine, whatever. You’re not the first person to tell me that I
can’t do something.’ ”
At college, she has hired pre-med students to help her with the nittygritty
details of life—getting bathed, getting into her chair, getting her
backpack strapped onto the chair, taking out the trash. She’s got a companion
dog, Jinx, a yellow Lab, who can pick up books and take her socks
off—he can even hold open doors with a harness on his back that includes
suction cups and hooks. She also has what she describes as a “really
cool” wheelchair that features two internal computers so that she can lie
down in it, and put her feet up and sit back, at her command.
So now she’s pretty dauntless. “We come up with these crazy ideas,”
she says of her crew. “Like, I decided I wanted to go skiing. Yes. Because,
like, I want to go skiing. They have sit skis. Yes. They’re like skis but you
sit on them. It will be my first time.” In the past she has talked about skydiving.
“My mom will just laugh—she’ll sit there and laugh.”
Gina is impressive, but she is not yet a world changer. She simply hasn’t
been around long enough.
The telekinetic monkey may change all that, though.
Gina’s father, Michael, is awfully proud of that monkey. He likes to
talk about how the work being done with it someday may change Gina’s
life. She may no longer need her wheelchair. Someday, because of that
monkey, she may be able to control machines with her thoughts. Those
machines may be embedded in her body. They might allow her to walk.
Gina is getting a little tired of hearing about the telekinetic monkey.
“In fact, I heard about the monkey over dinner last week while we were
at a restaurant.We had family friends over and they wanted to know, like,
what he was doing, and so he mentioned the monkey.”
What her father is doing at the particular moment of the early 21st
century captured here is running the Defense Sciences Office of the
United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is
one of the world’s foremost drivers of human enhancement. Goldblatt
readily acknowledges that his daughter is his inspiration. What he is doing
is spending untold millions of dollars to create what might well be the
next step in human evolution. And yes, it has occurred to him that the
technology he is helping create might someday allow his daughter not
just to walk but to transcend.
The first telekinetic monkey that DARPA funded is named Belle.
Belle is a cute monkey—an owl monkey, tiny, with huge brown globular
eyes framed in white ovals two-thirds the size of her head. Her fur is
russet and gray. Belle is astonishingly quick. One of her accomplishments
is her prowess at an electronic game. She intently watches a horizontal series
of lights in her lab at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
She knows that if a light suddenly shines and she moves her joystick left
or right to correspond to its position, she gets a drop of fruit juice. Treats
may not matter now, though. She’s gotten way into the game.
Belle is not really telepathic, strictly speaking. That would mean that
she could communicate from her mind directly to another mind. DARPA’s
researchers haven’t gotten that far—yet. Although Michael Goldblatt can
clearly see how they might.
Belle is telekinetic. That means that simply by thinking, she can get a
mechanical arm far away—in Massachusetts, in fact—instantly to move
exactly the way her mind commands. Her Duke researchers line up
probes thinner than the finest sewing thread right next to individual neurons
in different regions of Belle’s motor cortex—the part of the brain
that plans movements. These are linked to two computers, one in the
next room and another 600 miles north, at MIT, via the Internet. The
computers each control a robotic arm. Then the researchers disconnect
her joystick and start Belle’s game. Sure enough, not only is she able to
play it splendidly using just her thoughts, but the two robotic arms instantly
mimic the motions that Belle’s arm would make to control the
joystick, “like dancers choreographed by the electrical impulses sparking
in Belle’s mind,” her researchers report. The first time she did it, the two
labs, in North Carolina and New England, erupted into loud celebration.
Needless to say, there’s quite a story behind this. Especially since the
reason you create a telekinetic monkey is ultimately to create a connection
between any intelligence, silicon or human—any mind and any machine
—anywhere. It is meant to lead to the day when a human might, for
example, with her very thoughts control a robot orbiting Jupiter, causing
its sensors to zoom in this way and that.
The next step is to rig a distant machine such that it can pipe what it is
sensing directly into the brain of its human host. The goal is to seamlessly
merge mind and machine, engineering human evolution so as to directly
project and amplify the power of our thoughts throughout the universe.
If this sounds like superpowers, that is not far-fetched. In the 1930s and
1940s, in the hopes and dreams for society that we record in our comic
books, we began to imagine what it would be like for people to transcend
the mortal bonds of everyday humanity.
Take young Billy Batson, for example. He was a Depression-era orphan
who sold newspapers on the street and slept in the subway. One
night, he was led to a subterranean cavern and introduced to an ancient
Egyptian wizard. For 3,000 years this mage had battled evil with the wisdom
of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the
power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. Hence
his name, S-H-A-Z-A-M. Knowing Billy to be virtuous, and realizing it
was his time to pass, Shazam anointed the youth with his abilities. By uttering
the sorcerer’s name, Billy could become the grown-up Captain
Marvel, with powers that included super strength. He could leap great
distances and repel bullets with his body.
In today’s terms, Billy Batson is no fantasy. He’s somebody who’s got
hold of the nanotech Future Warrior exoskeleton—think of it as a wearable
robot suit with superhuman strength—now in development as part
of a $50 million program for the U.S. Army at Natick Labs in collaboration
Or take the story of the sickly Steven Rogers, who lived in Depression
poverty with his widowed mother, Sarah. She died overworking herself
to provide for her son, leaving him to survive as a delivery boy. Alarmed
by the rise of Nazism, Rogers decided to join the military but was
deemed “too frail.” After begging to be accepted, Rogers was tapped for
Operation Rebirth, given a “secret serum” and subjected to a rain of
“vita-rays.” The weakling was reborn as Captain America, who could lift
over a quarter of a ton and run 30 miles per hour, with reflexes 10 times as
fast as normal.
Nowadays, his treatment would be called gene doping, a biotechnology
already successful in lab animals and one that Olympic committees
fear will make its human debut well before the 2008 Olympic games
Throughout the cohort of yesterday’s superheroes—from Spider-Man
to the Shadow, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men—one sees
the outlines of technologies that today either exist or are now in engineering.
The Green Lantern has a ring that can create any physical object out
of little but his imagination and an energy source. (He has a nanotech
assembler—imagine a computer printer that can create any object from
its constituent atoms.) Superman has telescopic and X-ray vision. (This is
current military technology, from reconnaissance robots to cave pingers.)
In the middle of the 20th century, the powers of these superheroes
were dreams. Today, we are entering a world in which such abilities are
either yesterday’s news or tomorrow’s headlines. What’s more, the ability
to create this magic is accelerating. In 1985, the human genome was
thought to be a code that would resist being cracked until 2010 or 2020.
When the feat was accomplished in 2001 at a fraction of the estimated
price, it was no more surprising than was the cascade of cloned mice,
cats, rabbits, pigs and cattle that followed the first cloned sheep. Who is
not braced for the first renegade human clone?
What will this mean? Will human nature itself change? Will we soon
pass some point where we are so altered by our imaginations and inventions
as to be unrecognizable to Shakespeare or the writers of the ancient
Many are trying to envision such a world. They describe our children
and children’s children as no longer really being like us. They call them
transhuman or posthuman. They see our lives changing more dramatically
in the next few decades than in all of recorded history. Who knows?
They may be right.
After all, how many in the early 21st century expected an American
soldier in Asia to display supernatural powers by shining a little red light
on a target, confident that soon that laser would cause missiles precisely to
vaporize the tank he had illuminated?
THERE ARE VERY FEW organizations in the world that routinely look as far forward as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It regularly thinks—and funds—20 and 40 years out. It’s already changed your life. In the early sixties, there was no field of computer science. There were no computer science departments in universities and certainly no computer networks, much less personal computers. That’s when J.C.R. Licklider—director of command and control research for
the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA’s ancestral
organization—envisioned something he called the Intergalactic Computer
Network. He imagined it as an electronic commons open to all, “the main
and essential medium of informational interaction for governments, institutions,
corporations, and individuals.” On this Intergalactic Computer
Network, people using computers at home would be able to make purchases,
do banking, search libraries, get investment and tax advice, and
participate in cultural, sport and entertainment activities, he believed.
By the late 1960s, such prescience would inspire those who followed
Licklider at ARPA to fire up a halting, primitive version of his Intergalactic
Computer Network. They called it the Arpanet. This was a decade
before the first commercial personal computer. In the 1970s, they expanded
it into a network of networks.
You now know it, of course, as the Internet.
Today, DARPA is in the business of creating better humans.
“Soldiers having no physical, physiological, or cognitive limitations will
be key to survival and operational dominance in the future,” Goldblatt
once told a gathering of prospective researchers at an event called
DARPATech. “Indeed, imagine if soldiers could communicate by thought
alone. . . . Imagine the threat of biological attack being inconsequential.
And contemplate, for a moment, a world in which learning is as easy as
eating, and the replacement of damaged body parts as convenient as a
fast-food drive-through. As impossible as these visions sound or as diffi-
cult you might think the task would be, these visions are the everyday
work of the Defense Sciences Office. The Defense Sciences Office is
about making dreams into reality. . . . These bold visions and amazing
achievements . . . have the potential to profoundly alter our world. . . . It
is important to remember we are talking about science action, not science
DARPA is by no means the only or even the largest organization in the
business of creating the next humans. DARPA’s publicly acknowledged
$3 billion annual budget is less than that of the National Science Foundation
and is dwarfed by that of the National Institutes of Health, just to
name two near the nation’s capital. For that matter, its “bio-revolution”
program represents only a fraction of DARPA’s overall agenda.
The significance of DARPA trying to improve human beings, however,
is that few if any institutions in the world are so intentionally devoted
to high-risk, high-return, explicitly world-changing research. The
cast at DARPA does not have kind words for incremental research.
DARPA’s “only charter is radical innovation,” its strategic plan says. The
swagger at DARPA is that of players who always go for the long ball,
even at the risk of frequently striking out. Its program managers actively
seek out problems they call “DARPA-esque” or “DARPA-hard.” These
are challenges verging on the impossible. “We try not to violate any of
the laws of physics,” says DSO’s deputy director, Steve Wax. “Or at least
not knowingly,” adds Goldblatt. “Or at least not more than one per
The reason they reach that far is because they believe that’s where they
might find earthshaking results. That’s why it becomes common to hear,
wherever areas of astounding human transformation are discussed, “Oh,
DARPA is working on that.” That’s why DARPA is at the forefront of the
engineered evolution of mankind.
DARPA has a track record. Not only did it pioneer the Internet and
e-mail, but DARPA helped fund the computer mouse, the computer
graphics industry, very-large-scale integrated circuits, computers that recognize
human speech and translate languages, the computer workstation,
reduced-instruction-set computing, the Berkeley Unix operating system,
massively parallel processing and head-mounted displays. It was a key
player in the global positioning system, the cell phone, “own-the-night”
night-vision sensors, weather satellites, spy satellites and the Saturn V
rocket, which got humans to the moon. It also helped to create supercapacitors,
advanced fuel cells leading to the next generation of cars and
telesurgery. All of the military’s airplanes, missiles, ships and vehicles, including the materials and processes and armor that went into them, and
especially everything with the word stealth as part of its name, has
“DARPA inside.” Various ray guns, including laser, particle-beam and
electromagnetic-pulse weapons, started with DARPA. So did the M16
rifle. Then there are the legions of air, land and sea robots, including the
Predator, which, when it successfully fired a Hellfire missile at an al-
Qaeda leader’s SUV in Yemen in 2002, had the distinction of becoming
arguably the first robot known to incinerate a human being.
The whole point of DARPA is to “accelerate the future into being,” its
strategic plan says—to identify discoveries now on the far side of usefulness
and bring them to the near side as quickly as possible. One program
manager, in his DARPA job interview, was asked to describe where he
thought science would be in 20 years. Then he was asked whether he
would like to try to make it happen in three.
Particularly significant, DARPA creates institutions to support the future
it desires. DARPA invests 90 percent of its budget outside the federal
government, mainly in universities and industry. Academic centers at
MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon that made fundamental contributions
to information technology coalesced because of DARPA. If it feels
companies need to exist, DARPA helps foster those, including Sun
Microsystems, Silicon Graphics and Cisco Systems. If standards need to
exist, DARPA sometimes steps in, too, promoting, for example, Unix,
and the TCP/IP protocol that is the foundation of the Internet.
President Eisenhower created DARPA after the shock of Sputnik.
Americans believed the United States’ Cold War adversary had seized
“the ultimate high ground.” The military wanted to seize back the lead.
But most of all it wanted never again to be surprised by the technological
advances of potential adversaries.
As a result, DARPA’s brag list starts with space. (NASA was spun off
from DARPA.) Today’s list is heavily loaded toward the information industries,
because that’s where the payoff has been in the past few decades.
But just as DARPA in the mid-eighties began to invest heavily in biologically
inspired robots, since the late nineties it has increasingly focused on
human biology through the Defense Sciences Office. Goldblatt describes
human enhancement as “our future historical strength”—what DSO and
DARPA will be known for.
The denizens of the Defense Sciences Office treasure shirts with the
legend “DSO: DARPA’s DARPA.” The notion is that if DARPA is at the
cutting edge, DSO is the cutting edge of the cutting edge. In enhancing
human performance, the program managers of DSO see a “golden age” of
opportunity for radical, high-risk, high-reward change. As Goldblatt puts
it, the old Army slogan “ ‘Be All You Can Be’ takes on a new dimension.”
DARPA is headquartered across the Potomac from the District of Columbia
in Arlington, Virginia, convenient to the Pentagon. Its neighborhood
should be considered impressive. Within blocks are the vast digs of
the National Science Foundation, the campus of the Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation and the Arlington grounds of George Mason University.
Nonetheless, the area comes off as cheesy. It remains punctuated
by low-rent medical centers, a funeral home, a storefront where you can
learn ballroom dancing and an International House of Pancakes with a
spectacularly garish blue roof. These are the remnants of not long ago,
when Arlington was a shabby inner suburb. Today it is an increasingly
trendy and thriving collection of edge cities. Nonetheless, it will take
more bulldozing before a transition to physically distinguished is anywhere
DARPA is housed in a substantial 10-story building with a sort of
male, burgundy marble façade, smoked glass windows and an outdoor
plaza that sounds hollow when your heel hits it because of a parking cavern
below. Headquarters, nonetheless, is easy to miss. There are no signs
advertising the tenant. It blends so thoroughly with the other blocky of-
fice buildings in the area that it is possible to miss the turn even on the
fourth visit. The landmark to watch for is the uncommon number of police
cars, marked and unmarked, guarding the place.
In the visitor control center, three guards in blazers process guests,
while two more stand behind them, beneath a fashionably designed lighting
array with “DARPA” backlit in aqua. On the coffee table phone is a
red sign. It reads: “Do not discuss classified information. This telephone
is subject to monitoring at all times. Use of this telephone constitutes
consent to monitoring.” One day, a high-ranking, uniformed aide accompanied
retired admiral John Poindexter into visitor control. The aide
asked the guards if he could stash the admiral’s bag in the visitor center for
a short time. The look of fierce incredulity on the part of the guards was
so sufficient an answer that the aide hurriedly gathered up the bag.
At the elevators, the guards are conspicuously armed. Outside, if you
seem headed in a direction the guards don’t like, unmarked cars head you
off. Visitors are escorted even to the men’s room. Actually, security there
has been relaxed—the guides no longer have to accompany you into the
can. Now, they are relieved to report, they can just wait for you outside.
This buttoned-up environment contrasts sharply with the spirit on the
fifth floor. Goldblatt, the leader of the Defense Sciences Office, is a
quick, curly-haired elf with strikingly long blond eyelashes. He compares
his program managers to Jason and the Argonauts. It’s an interesting
Jason and the crew of the Argo were among the first legendary explorers
in human myth. Tales have been told about them now for 3,300 years.
They were the greatest pioneers ever to light out for the Territory. They
included Amphiaraus, the seer; Atalanta of Calydon, the virgin huntress
and only woman; Caeneus the Lapith, who had once been a woman;
Calais, the winged son of Boreas, the north wind; Heracles of Tiryns
(Hercules), the strongest man who ever lived and the only human to be
granted immortality among the gods; Periclymenus, the shape-shifting
son of Poseidon who could take any form in battle; and 44 more. These
ancient Greeks set sail when most of the eastern Mediterranean was an
unknown realm full of inexplicable gods and monsters and witches. They
met every challenge and faced every unknown. They performed impossible
feats. Jason yoked two fire-breathing bulls to plow the field of Ares,
sowed it with dragon’s teeth from which armed men immediately sprouted,
defeated that army single-handedly, and then got past a loathsome and
immortal dragon of a thousand coils, larger than the Argo itself, to snatch
the Golden Fleece of a magic ram.
We still celebrate what their story says about human nature. Lewis and
Clark’s Corps of Discovery, the first Americans to traverse what would
become the United States, echo the same myth. Take a close look at the
bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek. That’s Jason and the Argonauts rendered
in modern terms.
Heavy company. Nonetheless, of his crew, Goldblatt proclaims, “We
do not fear the unknown, and we relish exploring the unknowable.” And
who knows—history may not view his comparison as preposterous. For
his program managers have been handed the keys to all creation and asked
if they would like to take it out for a spin.
DARPA, for example, is very interested in creating human beings who
are unstoppable. Three things that slow humans down in combat are
pain, wounds and bleeding. So Navy commander Kurt Henry, a tall,
dark, muscular, mustached and affable physician who radiates the cool of
a movie leading man, is directing researchers who are working on those.
He is the manager of a program called Persistence in Combat (PIC).
In California, there is a biotech company in Silicon Valley called Rinat
Neuroscience. Henry is funding its “pain vaccine.” What the substance
does is block intense pain in less than 10 seconds. Its effects last for 30
days. It doesn’t stifle your reactions. If you touch a hot stove, you still have
the initial shock; your hand will still automatically jerk away. But after
that, the torment is gone. The product works on the inflammatory response
that is responsible for the majority of subacute pain. If you get
shot, you feel the bullet, but after that, the inflammation and swelling that
trigger agony are substantially reduced. The company has already hit its
first milestones in animal testing and is preparing reports for scientific
conferences. The commercial implications are formidable. If you were to
get $400 per dose for a quarter million troops, there’s your first $100 million.
Rinat is a spin-off from Genentech, the world’s first biotech firm. It
has attracted venture capital funding; an initial public offering is expected
soon. This product could revolutionize pain management. Think what it
could do for cancer patients.
Blinded rats are being made to see by Harry Whelan, a professor of
neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. In a battlefield, a laser
powerful enough to burn is a very lethal thing if it is aimed at pilots’ eyes.
Using light in the near-infrared spectrum, however, in a process called
photo-biomodulation, wound healing is accelerated. Vision in rats is
being largely restored in anywhere from 5 to 24 hours—not yet quick
enough to help pilots, but this is a work in progress. The research is suffi-
ciently advanced that it is about to be tried on monkeys. The hope is that
it will also mend wounds to skin, bone, neurons, cartilage, ligaments and
tendons within four days. Whelan is also exploring what the process
might do for spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and brain tumors, as
well as tissue and organ regeneration. If it works, he will have created
something akin to the “physiostimulator” of the original Star Trek, the
curative device Bones waves over injuries to heal them. The Navy SEALs
are deeply interested in that.
Henry is also directing a gaggle of researchers who have discovered
that the natural chemical cascades in the body that stop bleeding can be
triggered by signals from the brain. The implication of this is that you
might be able to train people to stop hemorrhaging within minutes, simply
by concentrating their mind on their wound. Henry is directing another
group of researchers who have discovered that if you inject millions
of microscopic magnets into a creature and then wave a wand over them
to get them all to point in the same direction, that can stop bleeding.
Those are not the most challenging of Henry’s programs, however.
That one would be Regenesis. Regenesis starts with the observation that
if you cut off the tail of a tadpole, the tail will regrow. If you cut off an
appendage of an adult frog, however, it won’t. This raises the question of
what mechanism has been shut off in the adult frog. If you could answer
that question, you might be able to figure out what mechanism in humans
has been shut off that prevents us from regrowing a blown-off hand
or a breast removed in a mastectomy. “We had it; we lost it; we need to
find it again” is Henry’s slogan. As one of his principal investigators,
Robert Fitzsimmons, points out, it is possible to grow an entire human
from only a few cells. Every human ever conceived demonstrates that. So
why can’t you regrow an arm? What are the rules? And if you think the
answer to that question will be available in a thousand years, the next
question is, why not now?
You ask Henry if he is modeling his program after the lines in Macbeth:
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
His response is—no, not particularly, why do you ask?
Did you know that dolphins and whales never sleep? At least not the
way we do. They can’t. They’re mammals. If they slept, they’d drown.
What they have evolved instead is an ability to allow only one portion of
their brain to sleep at a time. While the right lobe sleeps, the left lobe is
on guard. Then they switch brains. What would happen if humans could
control which portion of their brain is working while another portion
recharges? The goal of the Continuous Assisted Performance (CAP) program,
managed by John Carney, is to find out.
“As combat systems become more sophisticated and reliable, the major
limiting factor for operational dominance in a conflict is the warfighter,”
the CAP mission statement says. “Eliminating the need for sleep during
an operation, while maintaining the high level of both cognitive and
physical performance of the individual, will create a fundamental change
in warfighting. . . . The capability to resist the mental and physiological
effects of sleep deprivation will fundamentally change current military
concepts of ‘operational tempo.’ ”
The plan is to create a “24/7” soldier—one who can easily navigate,
communicate and make good decisions for a week without sleep. Any
enemy who does have to sleep would be at a profound disadvantage. Small
groups of sleep-free warriors could run rings around much larger forces.
Logistics would fundamentally change. This is no small deal. Military savants
like to say, “Amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics.” The
Marines call the supply of “beans, bullets, and Band-Aids”—food, ammunition
and medical supplies—a major limit to battle. If they were provided
on a true round-the-clock basis, especially when the military is flying
them from North Carolina to wherever the battle is, it changes a lot of
equations. (Think of the equations that might be changed for civilians
working for Federal Express. Think what this will do for college students
and medical residents pulling all-nighters for a week.)
“In short, the capability to operate effectively, without sleep, is no less
than a 21st century revolution in military affairs that results in operational
dominance,” the mission statement says.
Carney is pink-skinned and soft, with gold wire-framed glasses. He
somehow manages to look like a plumber, which he is, in a neuropharmacological
sort of way. He holds over 150 patents. The Silicon Valley
company he founded, Centaur Pharmaceuticals, commercializes his research
on stroke medication. It now has several drugs in phase two and
three clinical trials, meaning they may soon come to market.
“Through evolution certain species have already solved the problem of
how not to sleep; they actually don’t care about sleep,” he notes. Yet what
happens in humans is that “after 24 hours you start getting a little bit irritable,
by 48 hours you’re frankly irritable and not fun to be around, and
you’re making bad judgment calls. But if you happen to have stars on
your shoulder”—if you’re a general—“nobody’s going to challenge you.
You’re still going to be out there at the command center making bad decisions
and nobody’s going to come up to you and tell you that you’re
making bad decisions because you’ll bark at them. And then by 72 hours
you’re frankly not useful for anybody. Even though you’re still standing.”
CAP’s major research efforts include preventing or reversing changes in
the brain caused by sleep deprivation; expanding available memory space
within the brain, especially short-term memory; and developing problemsolving
circuits within the brain that are sleep-resistant. As it happens,
finding out how to redirect function from one pathway in the brain to another
also has enormous potential for civilians with Alzheimer’s, stroke
and brain damage.
Another program of Carney’s is Unconventional Pathogen Counter-
measures. The point is, for example, to “take anthrax off the table” as a
threat, as Carney puts it. Also smallpox. What’s unconventional about it is
that “despite the fact that you’re in the middle of nowhere and you have
no way of getting medical help to diagnose what you’ve got, the drug
What’s more, as a side benefit, it apparently could cure malaria, and
probably the common cold. “Yes. Anything that can infect you,” says
Carney. “It’s not going to cure Alzheimer’s disease or arthritis. But anything
that came from the living world that can cause disease in you.”
We’re talking about Pestilence as in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?
“Right,” says Carney.
And you’re going to knock that baby right out of its—?
“Yes,” Carney continues.
The object of the game is to discover the essential part of life common
to many of these pathogens—no matter how they might be genetically
reengineered—and interrupt them. An example would be finding an enzyme
that appears only in bacteria but not in us. It might exist only for a
very brief time in the bacteria, but without it, that life form cannot exist.
Then you attack it. Another is “genomic glue”—something that sticks
onto the genome of the pathogen so tightly that it prevents the genome
from being read, translated and in any way replicated. It’s like laying logs
on a train track. Nothing in the cell gets through. The nice part, so far, is
that the bugs have not been able to develop resistance to the treatment no
matter how hard the researchers have tried to induce it. There are half a
dozen approaches to viruses and bacteria in the works, but one antigenomic
drug is at the last stages of testing in mice. This one seems to
work on smallpox, malaria, anthrax and tularemia. It stops the Black
Death—the plague—in its tracks. And yes, it also works on the flu.
Researchers are ready to go to the FDA for human-safety trials. They
hope the substance will be stockpiled against biological warfare, for
which no clinical trials are ethically possible.
Will these approaches throw out some side effect that makes them unusable?
If we were to tamper with the ecology of bugs in our system,
killing off whole classes of them, might a potentially explosive Darwinian
niche be opened into which all kinds of fearful unknowns might pour?
“It’s like wildcatting for oil,” says Carney. “It’s a high-reward, high-risk
“This is a paradigm shift, yes,” Carney says. He’s interested in making
your immune system invulnerable. “One of the things that DARPA does
historically is get into an area, give it the kind of credibility and experience
that it needs to become accepted, and then we move on. I would say
that in the world of immune modulators, we’ve done that.”
Just to make things clear, “DARPA has no laboratory space,” Goldblatt
says. “DARPA does no work which we would consider execution. The
actual work products—the milestones, the goals and objectives—are all
done by independent investigators. They have the common tie—that
they applied for—of funding coming from the Unconventional Pathogen
“These hands never get dirty,” Carney jokes. Program managers like
him—almost all PhD’s or MD’s or the equivalent, with years of experience
in their fields—are compared to horse-racing pros, like jockeys.
They pick and choose and encourage those who actually do the work. In
fact, DARPA has been described as 140 decision makers united by a common
travel department. (Usually, 23 of these are in the Defense Sciences
Office.) They build communities of principal investigators who otherwise
might not know much about each other. “The people who do our
work are the smart people outside this building,” says another program
manager, Alan Rudolph. “You can have all the visions you want, but if
there isn’t a horse to ride, you’re not going anywhere in the race. Now,
sometimes you’ve got to go out and convince the horse to run your race.
Of course, the way we do that is to incentivize them with big money.”
“People around here get desensitized to what a million dollars means,”
Goldblatt says. “People around here get desensitized to what ten million
What would happen if these DARPA program managers weren’t around?
“Probably a lot of these projects would never be done,” Carney replies.
“In fundamentals, we are tolerant to risk. Others are less tolerant to risk.
So it might take a lot longer for somebody to get support. Or you don’t
know if they would ever pass muster to be able to get money from other
What else is on Carney’s mind?
He wonders if it might be possible to recognize “a genetic personality.”
“Is there a way to identify people who have a particular behavioral vulnerability
that makes them more likely to be involved in lying and deceiving
people from the standpoint of the terrorism issue?” he asks.
Has it been established that such a gene exists?
“No. Only in the figment of my imagination. But Michael can tell
you that I’m a little different from the normal cut of people. I like to
dream about things.”
Hunger, exhaustion and despondency also slow humans down. Dealing
with that is the province of the Metabolically Dominant Soldier program,
managed by Joe Bielitzki. Bielitzki is a proud son of St. Sylvester’s
parish on Chicago’s Near Northwest Side, near Logan Square. He has the
broad shoulders and chest of a triathlete, which is the event for people
who think marathons are for sissies. It is an endurance race combining
three long-haul events—swimming, bicycling and running. He still competes,
even though he is in his fifties.
Bielitzki jokes that “Metabolically Dominant Soldier” sounds like he’s
trying to create Spider-Man. No, not exactly, he explains. But his aim is
high. He is tinkering with the internal machinery of human cells—
controlling cellular metabolism and other activity within the cells—with
the aim of tuning up every soldier’s metabolism to the level of Olympic
endurance athletes. “We want every war fighter to look like Lance Armstrong
as far as metabolic profile,” he says, referring to the American cycling
champion. “A metabolically dominant soldier has strength and
endurance that doesn’t quit. The Energizer Bunny in fatigues kind of
does it. Keeps going and going.”
He claims he is not talking about creating superhuman strength. But
he is interested in improving human cells from the extremely small parts
up. Take mitochondria, for example. They produce the energy to power
the cell. He is interested in modifying the number of mitochondria in
muscle cells and their efficiency at creating energy. He is confident that
he can take an individual now formidably trained to perform 80 pull-ups
before exhaustion and render him capable of 300. Not to mention being
able to walk forever with a 150-pound pack.
He likes the slogan “Be all that you can be and a lot more.”
One of the ways Bielitzki would like to do this is by eliminating the
need for food. “One of the things we know about war fighters is that we
can’t get enough calories in them to maintain high levels of strength and
endurance over time,” he says. “And so metabolic dominance is really focused
on—if you can’t get enough into ’em, why not just do away with
food for three to five days completely?
“Special Forces guys working a 14-hour day are going to burn 6,000 to
7,000 calories a day. If we increase it to 24 hours a day”—that would be if
Carney’s program works and these guys don’t sleep—“they’re going to
need 12,000 calories a day. You can’t eat that much. Well, you can, but
you’re not going to feel good about it. It boils down to one Meal, Ready
to Eat, and 46 PowerBars. You can’t eat 46 PowerBars in a day. You can’t
even carry ’em. And so the question is, if we can only get 15 to 20 percent
of your calories into you in a rational way, why put any into you at all?
Why not, say, live off what you’ve got? We’ve all got stored calories—we
just don’t have access to them right now. So this is about improving the
muscle and mitochondria so they can utilize the energy that’s available.
Maybe instead of deploying you lean and mean, we deploy you mean and
“And the other issue is how do you deploy the soldiers at peak and
keep them at peak the whole time they’re out there so there’s no degradation
in their performance level, either cognitively or physically and
maybe most importantly emotionally?
“When I say ‘emotionally’—I don’t know if you’ve ever done endurance
“The one thing we know is that when you get hypoglycemic”—when
you run out of carbohydrate energy—“you start to get depressed. You
become despondent. You lose focus, mental acuity, response time, but
mostly you just don’t care. And that’s a bad thing to have happen to you
on the battlefield.
“We know that happens with Special Forces guys.” Twenty-four hours
after they go into action, “their physical levels are 40 percent below
where they were when they started. And we want to get rid of that degradation
Bielitzki insists he is not talking about building supermen.
The Department of Defense “says this is about winning. This is not
about losing,” Bielitzki says. “It’s not about having the war fighters sent
out on the field to die.When you look at reasons for failure and you look
at reasons why people die, they are getting weak, getting hungry, making
bad decisions, being unable to continue. Those are the reasons you get
killed. We want to remove that if we’re going to have to put people in
harm’s way. This is not about Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator.”
And this would make you metabolically dominant relative to whom?
“Everybody else. My nutrition and my ability to utilize stored energy
supplies for three to five days is such that I don’t need to eat calories, but I
always have calories available for energy.”
When you start asking questions at DARPA, one reply comes up a lot:
“The civilian implications of this technology have not escaped us.”
Take the moment, for example, when it finally sinks in that Bielitzki is
talking about fixing your cells so that you could live off your fat. A man
who has worked out for years in an unsuccessful attempt to control his
potbelly quickly raises his hand. “Me, me,” he croaks. “Give some to me.”
Bielitzki acknowledges the potential for spin-off technologies. “Forty
billion dollars a year goes into the weight loss industry in this country,” he
muses. “This will change it.”
A science and technology policy wonk, deeply worried about engineered
human evolution in all its forms, stops dead when told about the
potential for cell enhancement to conquer fat. “It does what?” she asks.
“Okay, so I burn in hell for this. Sign me up.”
“Will it have significant dual use?” Bielitzki asks. “Probably. Will the
International Olympic Committee ban it? Absolutely. My measure of
success for this is that the IOC bans everything that we do.We know that
Lance Armstrong is different than everybody else. Can we safely induce it
in anybody in a short period of time? That’s really what metabolic dominance
is about. Will there be a commercial market for it? Probably.
Somebody has to make it. Is this a classified project at this point? No.
This is all open.”
Does this change human nature?
“I don’t think human nature changes very much. Cognitive carrying
capacity to hold information hasn’t changed,” Bielitzki says.
Ah yes. This brings us to Alan Rudolph.
Alan Rudolph is the godfather of the telekinetic monkey.
Rudolph has a goofy, boyish grin, stylish rimless glasses, a PhD in cell
biology from the University of California at Davis and an MBA from The
George Washington University. He is the program manager for an
extraordinarily broad portfolio of DSO’s projects. He jockeys hundreds
of principal investigators. But he has also gotten his hands dirty. He has 15
patents in biological self-assembly, biomaterials, tissue engineering and
neurosciences. He makes a distinction between DARPA and think tanks
such as RAND, Brookings and the Highlands Forum.
“There are a lot of people who think about the future. This is one of
those places where you can put money behind those fantasies. You get a
vision, and then you start throwing money at it and trying to roll the ball
down the road. It makes it an interesting place, no doubt.”
He likes to describe himself as a “combat zoologist.”
“Let me give you a little bit of my background so you understand my
perspective,” he says. “I’m a zoologist, and I think there’s maybe three of
us in the whole DOD. I come from systems taxonomy, physiology, the
thinking about populations, ecologies, communities and organisms, how
they adapt and evolve. Then I went off and got an MBA because I wanted
to figure out how to make these things happen. A lot of things happen
because somebody’s got to make some money. Bad or good.”
So now he’s working on everything from multilegged robots to computerized
human eye implants to brain-machine interfaces—the famous
“The culture here allows you to say what if, and I’m willing to cross the
boundary. What’s born here is a fundamental philosophy that says what if
we can just increase the number of interconnects between living systems
and the nonliving world—hardware or software—what could happen?”
One thrust ends up making machines more lifelike. “Neurotechnology
for biomimetic robots,” he says. “Getting robots to jump, run, crawl,
do things that nature does well. We’re evolving our machines to be more
The other thrust connects life more directly with machines. “Let’s create
higher-density interconnects with living systems. And let’s do so with
the brain and with neural tissue.” What does this mean? Rudolph describes
it as “listening to the orchestra of neurons.”
“Much of what you and I do that’s different than a cockroach is based
on our central nervous system and our brain,” he observes. “It was just a
leap of faith that if we could create interfaces with living systems”—
devices that can “listen to the plethora of signals, that good things would
happen.” If you listen to the “orchestra” of the brain, you might be able
to detect patterns in the signals “and try to make a song or a piece of
music that had meaning.”
The result is massive connections between individual living neurons
inside the skulls of humans and wires that lead to computers. The first
commercial step was cochlear implants—tiny machines that allow the
profoundly deaf to hear by wiring tiny computers directly to the nervous
system. “You talk about transforming humans. That was one of the earliest
examples of a successful brain-machine interface. Thirty-five thousand
people now have cochlear implants and are doing pretty well,”
Rudolph observes. The next step is retinal implants—computer eyes—
wired to the brain of the blind.
But that’s not the hard part. The DARPA-hard part is hearing the symphony
for motion. “That’s a really hard defense problem,” Rudolph says.
“One of the fun things is you go play combat zoologist,” he says. “You
take a bunch of scientists and you go stick ’em in an infantry unit and you
run around and play the war game. You go down to Combat Town in
Quantico. You go on a carrier and get a ride in an F-16. It’s a real fantasy
camp. It’s a great way to get a sense of the problems. We can be future
thinkers, but when you have a customer you can’t lose sight of that. And
as long as we have a D in front of DARPA, we have to be cognizant of the
“I’m sure people raise their eyes and say, ‘What the hell is a brainmachine
interface going to do for the Defense Department?’ Well, you
draw them back to Foxfire with Clint Eastwood. The cockpit of a jet
fighter is a complex place to be, filled with challenges for human performance.
If the brain can somehow play a role in command and control
of those systems, that would be a good thing.”
Here’s where Gina Goldblatt comes in.
“We’ve got a program in exoskeletons here. A guy’s going to put on a
suit and run and jump high or whatever.” This is the Superman program
in which the suit picks up on its wearer’s muscle movements and greatly
amplifies them so, for example, you can carry a 500-pound pack on your
back for a very long time. But suppose the exoskeleton was responding
not to your muscle movements but to your brain commands. “The reality
is if you had a brain-machine interface, that’s going to be an integral part
of how he does that well. We’re asking a fundamental question: Can the
brain accommodate control and command of new devices?”
That was the point of Belle controlling the mechanical arm with her
thoughts. Or of Ivy and Aurora, the monkeys that came after Belle. Eventually
you might fly an F-22 with your thoughts. Or Gina might control
artificial muscles with her mind.
Right now the way you make it happen with monkeys is not great.
You drill a hole in the head of the monkey and implant a device that
looks like a very tiny hairbrush bristling with hundreds of wires, each of
which lines up next to individual neurons. “We are thinking now of ways
to get these interfaces in without opening your head, drilling the thing
in,” says Rudolph.
“We’ve got our team of 70 crazed academics charging this dream.
There are commercialization efforts sort of working now in parallel. A
new company started called Cyberkinetics. They’re going to sell a device
to quadriplegics, paraplegics and locked-in patients who can’t move a
damn thing. Christopher Reeve had intact central nervous system motor
function. So you can implant a chip in those people.”
Then comes the question of how you run a device that you’re not used
to running. “I’ve got a little robotic dog and a little robotic cockroach.
The cool thing is can I figure out how to control and experience that
from a [human] central nervous system point of view?”
Isn’t the hard part of that getting the information from the robotic
cockroach and porting it back into your skull?
“Yes, the same chip will close the loop and will allow you to experience
—whatever—controlling a robot, maybe flying a plane. Not from
the standpoint of feeling it as a joystick, but as other sensory input. Visual,
mechanical, force dynamics.”
In other words, you should be able to pipe any sense from any sensor,
anywhere, into your brain. You might directly sense the images from a remote
camera, for example, allowing you to feel as if you had eyes in the
back of your head. For that matter, you might feel a color or taste a sound.
“That’s the powerful vision that I think this could enable. There’s no
reason why one can’t input with a chip other types of experiences.”
Closing the loop—allowing the human brain to receive signals directly,
not just send them—opens the door to genuine telepathy. Rudolph’s researchers
are working on creating telepathic marmosets. Marmosets are
very small South American monkeys with thick, soft, richly variegated fur.
He’s trying to get them to conduct brain-to-brain communication.
“Marmosets have distinctive calls associated with fear and threat, food
and familial identification. We’re going to use that device—that hairbrush.
Both of them are going to have hairbrushes” embedded in their
brains. “We’re going to send the pattern with that call to a second one. If
he hears the right call, we’re going to look for a response. Then the question
is, well, what if the monkey says, ‘Fuck you’—you know what I
mean? There are a number of issues and challenges that we’re going to
face with this. A National Academy member is involved with this one, at
Vanderbilt—Jon Kaas, the guy who mapped the motor cortex. I mean, I
couldn’t have been more pleased to get a senior guy willing to take that
kind of chance. It is amazing what real critical thinkers are willing to do.”
Why stop at transmitting speech directly into the brain? Why not
“Can I alter what you see, change what you see, or put something in
that you see what I see or you see what my camera sees?” Rudolph says.
For example, “I want to see over the hill and I send a micro air vehicle or
a robot over there and now I’m experiencing the visual image of the
robot. I see what it sees.”
There’s no reason, by the way, that these images have to be in the spectrum
of ordinary light. If you want to see in infrared or ultraviolet or
whatever else the machine can sense, patch those night-vision puppies
right into your visual cortex. Why should owls have all the fun?
“The third project,” says Rudolph, “has profound implications for
neuro degeneracies as well as augmented humans. I think it’s the closest in
terms of thinking about the evolution of man in the context of cognition.
You’re going to put the hairbrush in with this chip that mimics the
circuitry of the brain.” You replace a damaged portion of the brain with a
chip that works like the brain. “For the first time you have a chip that
now participates with brain function. Such a chip could be used to augment
brain function. You start to increase processing speed. You will enhance
memory. We’ll know in the next year or two whether we can
replace a lost circuit.”
How are you going to change the batteries?
“It’s a good point. It’s a good point. Power is a big issue. Our battery
technology sucks. Our power problems are huge. I think all these implants
will be run off the energy in the body, ATP. There’s low-temperature
fuel in the body. The body is amazing in terms of its chemical
conversions of energy. So we have a whole program that we launched.”
Is that yours, too?
“Biomotors, yes. I share it with another program manager, Anantha
Krishnan. We have some implantable batteries that work off of the natural
body constituents. Tissue engineering is going to give us muscle.
Building robots with living muscle.”
Why would you want to do that?
“Right now we can keep it alive longer than we can get a battery to
work. Yes. Outside the body. Yes.We’ve got a thing called the ‘lox bot.’ ”
It’s a little biorobotic device that resembles a piece of smoked salmon. “It
uses skeletal muscle from a frog, and the damn thing swims using skeletal
muscle. It swims through its energy source. It’s in a bath of glucose and
ATP and the thing swims for like 20 hours. That’s the University of
Michigan and MIT.”
The challenge, I tell Rudolph, is going to be convincing my mother
that this is not science fiction.
“Me too.” He laughs. “You’re just trying to write about it. Try telling
them I’m spending your tax dollars doing this.
“And we haven’t talked about bees. I do a lot of stuff with bees. That’s
10,000 flying dogs. They can be trained to sniff for things. They are little
electrostatic dust mops so they collect things on their body and bring
back spores and all kinds of information. A honeybee hive of 10,000 or so
makes 100,000 trips per day over a five-kilometer radius. So the amount
of information coming back to the hive is huge. So we place technology
at the hive and just monitor the hive.We looked at one where you pull in
a truck with concealed explosives and train honeybees to smell explosives.
Put the honeybee hives on either side and with a camera just look at
the truck and count bees swarming around the truck.”
Does former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix know about this?
“Oh, you know, the military is way too conservative to use a beehive.
We told this to the Israeli national police, and they grilled me for, you
know, 45 minutes on what happens if somebody gets stung. So I said,
‘Look, at the end of the day you’ve got a choice. You can get stung by a
bee or blown up by a terrorist. I’ll take the bee.’ ”
Have you read Michael Crichton’s book, Prey?
“I haven’t read his book yet. Is it good?”
Well, the bad guys are funded by DARPA.
“Oh, Jeez,” he replies.
The list of DARPA-inspired human enhancements goes on and on.
General Dynamics has a development and production contract potentially
worth $3 billion intended to transform muddy-boot soldiers into
nodes on a network. This involves manufacturing what the Pentagon
calls “uniforms” for use by soldiers in the field by 2010. But this Objective
Force Warrior Ensemble is far more than clothing. The soldier wears
an undershirt fitted with body sensors that keep track of and broadcast his
vital signs. His helmet receives video from robots. It also holds a camera,
night-vision amplifiers, infrared sensors, laser finders, a global positioning
system and a skull-mounted transmitter and receiver. A retractable eyepiece
is useful for reading text messages or to view images sent from
command centers or drones. Body armor is lighter, contributing to an
equipment weight reduction of 50 percent, to 50 pounds. In this configuration,
unmanned vehicles, known as mules, carry supplies. “Can you
imagine traversing the mountains of Afghanistan with 100 pounds on
your back?” asks program engineer Jean-Louis “Dutch” DeGay.
The original vision of the Engineered Tissue Constructs (ETC) program
is based on the idea of rebuilding customized organs and body parts
on demand, with the construction going on inside your body, not transplanted.
One of the goals of the Metabolic Engineering program is to allow
badly injured soldiers to go into suspended animation or hibernation. It
would allow them to survive even without oxygen for short periods of
time, until the area is safe enough for help to arrive. This is also the program
interested in allowing soldiers to run Olympic-quality sprints for 15
minutes on one breath of air. Turns out humans are very inefficient in the
way we process resources. There’s a whole lot of oxygen in one breath,
and we waste most of it.
The Bioinspired Dynamic Robotics program is trying to replicate the
foot of the gecko, the tropical lizard with amazing feet that perform Spider-
Man–like feats. It would be handy for robots also to be able to climb
straight up walls and hang from ceilings.
The Mesoscopic Integrated Conformal Electronics (MICE) program
has already succeeded in printing electronic circuits on the frames of
eyeglasses and helmets, weaving them into clothes, even putting them
on insects. These include electronics, antennas, fuel cells, batteries and
The Biological Input/Output Systems program is designed to enable
plants, microbes and small animals to serve as “remote sentinels for reporting
the presence of chemical or biological” particles. They’d do this
by changing color, lighting up fluorescently, dropping their leaves or
changing the color of their flowers.
The Brain-Machine Interface program is investigating how you would
put wireless modems into people’s skulls.
And that’s just the Defense Sciences Office, the department of
DARPA most directly involved with human enhancement. Meanwhile,
on the floor where the Information Processing Technology Office
(IPTO) resides, its director, Ron Brachman, former research vice president
at AT&T Labs and previously at Bell Labs, and president of the
American Association for Artificial Intelligence, wants to complete
DARPA’s vision from the sixties. When the original IPTO was created in
1962, its director, J.C.R. Licklider, focused the office on his novel conception
of computers and humans working in symbiosis. That idea resulted
in the Internet. Now the new IPTO “wants to realize this vision
by giving computing systems unprecedented abilities to reason, to learn,
to explain, to accept advice, and to reflect, in order to finally create systems
able to cope robustly with unforeseen circumstances,” according to
Brachman. The object of the game is to produce machines—and the italics
are his—“that truly know what they’re doing.”
Some of this is so far-out-sounding that it beggars description. Don’t
even ask about the “special focus area” called Time Reversal Methods,
Devotees of the film Men in Black may recall the scene near the end
when the two protagonists sit wiping their faces of intestinal slime from
the interstellar cockroach they have just vanquished. Will Smith turns to
Tommy Lee Jones and says, “This definitely rates about a 9.0 on my
Many is the time, cruising DARPA, that it is easy to recall that scene.
Readers with eclectic historical memory may by now be asking, “Aren’t
these the same guys who, during the Cold War, poured our taxpayer dollars
into crackpot schemes like extrasensory perception and remote viewing?”
Yes, and the guys at DARPA still don’t apologize for it. In fact, it’s a perverse
badge of honor. “If those had worked, wouldn’t you like to have
known about it?” asks Goldblatt. “As long as it can be investigated rigorously
and systematically and step by step, very little is too far outrism? Actually, Poindexter worked not in the Defense Sciences Office but in a different
department. Whole other floor. And they’ve canned the logo and
changed the name. And they’re feeling hurt and misunderstood.
The press jumped to all sorts of inaccurate conclusions,
they say. Not surprising given that DARPA, as usual, displayed its
maddening reflex of not wanting to discuss what’s up, even when the
outlines of their projects are on the public record. But yes, that’s DARPA.
Will all these projects work? Unquestionably, no. Not all. DARPA's attitude
is taht if an idea looks like a sure thing, let somebody else fund it. The
National Science Foundation. Or venture capitalists, more to the
point. A project is regarded as "DARPA-esque" only if few others would
tackle it, but it would be earth-jolting if it did work. If you don't have
failures, you're not far enough out. DARPA managers veiw themselves as
instigators. By the time something new is mainstream enought to attract
academic conferences attended by several hundred researchers, DSO
usually sees its midwife work as done and moves on to new challenges. At the
same time, DSO ruthlessly cuts off money to projects that fail to achieve
their milestones, goals and objectives. An effective program manager
knows when to cut bait.
Will all these projects bear fruit soon? Some more than others, and for
the same reason. The bulk of DARPA's projects operate in the 5- to 10-
year time frame. But especially in the Defense Sciences Office, by the
time a project is sufficiently mature that manufacturers are asking what
color seats you’d like in it, program managers, like the Lone Rangers they
are, have disappeared in a cloud of dust and a mighty “Hi-yo Silver.” At
the same time, history is moving fast enough that portions of this list may
very well become part of your life between the time this is written and
the time you read it.
Do defense dollars cause weird bounces in the research efforts? No
question. The program to grow replacemees about that,
Goldblatt replies, “Yes, of course. It’s your job. We even have a bioethicist
on staff. But you can’t let the fear of the future inhibit exploring the future.”
Are there no limits on what we should try based on potential for evil?
“I don’t think you should stop yourself because you can dream up scenarios
where things didn’t go the way you wanted them to go.We probably
wouldn’t be flying people into space if we really understood the risks,
and now that we understand the risks more clearly, I guess there’s a question
of whether we will put more people in space.”
If you ask Joe Bielitzki, the self-proclaimed pacifist who’s creating the
metabolically dominant soldier, about the implications of creating supermen,
he sounds tortured. He replies, “There’s potential for contradictions
in all of science, but the intent is not to create a superman. The intent is
to send the war fighter out there best equipped to come back alive. And
those are big differences. I mean, the results may look similar, but the intent
is not to create a superhuman. There’s no reason to have a superhuman.
But get somebody who can carry a little more, go on a little longer,
drag their butt off the battlefield even if they’re injured—keeping people
alive is really what it’s about. And this is coming from probably the ultimate
pacifist. War is not a good thing to be in. But if people are going to
fight you might as well give them every chance to come home to the
people who love ’em.”
If you ask Kurt Henry, who’s trying to regrow arms that are blown off,
about the meaning of what he’s doing, he replies with a grin, “That’s
above my pay grade. That’s not my department.”
GINA GOLDBLATT isnot all phobic about technology. She's ac-
customed to relying on it. "Technology is assisting the disabled person
to reach her full potential,” she says. “That means that I started using
computers in third grade.A lot of people don’t think of their computer as
their pen and paper, where I did. So therefore it allowed me to remain in
So what about brain implants like Belle’s? I ask her. Are you looking
forward to getting one of those? Cyberkinetics, that Massachusetts company
funded by DARPA, has received the Food and Drug Administration’s
permission to test just such a device on humans.
“Like, people are asking me that, too,” she said. “My friends will ask
me, ‘do you ever look at the future as being able to find a cure for cerebral
palsy?’ But I don’t know. I know my cerebral palsy is—whether or not I
want to admit it—part of me. It always has been and it always will be.”
Gina Goldblatt sees her cerebral palsy as part of her human nature.
WHEN MICHAEL GOLDBLATT and I first met, we ended up
at a nearby restaurant call Tara Thai. There he started to open
up about the importance of the work DARPA was doing, creating
bolder, better, stronger, faster, smarter human beings.
He mentioned the impact DARPA’s work would have on us all. For
example, he said, he had a daughter with cerebral palsy. She had spent her
whole life in a wheelchair. While her accomplishments were many and
remarkable, he was actually spending many millions of taxpayer dollars to
save his daughter, and mentioned the work with Belle, the North Carolina
monkey. Thus I heard the story for the first time.
So, I said, in order to save your daughter, you’re willing to fundamentally
alter human nature?
There was a four-beat pause.
“Fundamentally altering human nature,” Michael Goldblatt finally
said, “would be an unintended consequence.”