"We're not looking to make an app to get you a latte faster," reads the slogan of Biology Is Technology, the Pentagon's research symposium held this week in New York City. "We're looking to solve problems that matter."
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had tasked the best and brightest startups, major industry players and universities to create the Next Big Thing in science — no easy feat. (One big ask: As Mic reported Wednesday, DARPA expressed interest in controlling human adrenal responses, lowering anxiety and fear in U.S. soldiers.)
"At DARPA, we think of these concepts in a human-centered way," project manager Justin Sanchez said Tuesday at the conference, which is led by DARPA's Biological Technologies Office. "We serve military personnel ... Whether that's on the battlefield or when they come home, these are the kinds of technologies that can be useful in both domains."
Controlling human fear was just the tip of the biotechnological iceberg. Here are the biggest takeaways from the symposium — the most exciting advances in tech and science the U.S. military is looking to invest in.
1. Brain-machine symbiosis
Right now, we have ways to control prosthetic limbs with our minds. But so far, machines have a big limitation: They can't predict what we're trying to do with those limbs. Think of the Nest thermostat, which learns our temperature preferences after we've proactively made those changes. What if that thermostat were tied to your physiology — and could raise or lower the temperature in the room based on your heart rate?
This is what DARPA project manager Justin Sanchez wants to create: sympathetic computers that react to your body's signals.
"Say you're running on your treadmill," Sanchez said Tuesday. "Your heart rate becomes elevated, you start sweating. Let's say it could understand those signals and could adjust the temperature depending on what your physiological state is."
The technology would involve sensors that can pick up the signals your body gives off, like heart rate and body temperature, and the corresponding software to make real-world reactions, like turning on a building's A/C.
2. Controlling the nervous system
Pacemakers have been around for decades, but the next wave for even more complex organs is upon us. DARPA's Doug Weber brought up the concept of bioelectronic medicines, or technologies that communicate with the nervous system to moderate reactions to inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and allergies, regulate blood pressure, restore movement to paralyzed muscles and decrease reactions to anxiety and fear.
"We can do a lot for amputees right now," Weber told Mic. "[But] with similar approaches, we can also treat inflammatory disease, cardiovascular disorders, anxiety disorders, mental health disorders. The world of options is vast, and each of those areas presents huge disease burdens for our society."
Most of all, using these bioelectric medicines would do away with a huge dependency on prescription medicines. Anxiety medicine, blood-pressure medicine and medicines to treat post-traumatic stress disorder could all be replaced by manually dialing down severe reactions in the nervous system. It could give people suffering from paralysis an opportunity to walk again, or reestablish control of muscles in elderly people who've lost the ability to control smaller muscle groups.
Considering the sheer number of people affected by inflammatory diseases, anxiety and mental health disorders, this technology could drastically improve the quality of life for millions of people.
3. Terraforming Mars
The prospect of doing more than just slinging a robot onto the Mars surface is a big bet for any space agency. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has voiced skepticism about colonizing the red planet, mostly because, unlike when colonists came to North America, there won't be any known terrestrial natural resources to utilize. That is, unless DARPA can do something about it.
On Tuesday, Alicia Jackson, deputy director of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, presented the agency's interest in terraforming Mars with synthetic organisms. Doing so would allow humanity to strengthen the atmosphere, which is roughly 100 times thinner than Earth's.
"For the first time,"Jackson told a room, "we have the technological toolkit to transform not just hostile places here on Earth, but to go into space not just to visit but to stay."
The reason the technology is finally on the table comes from running tests with organisms besides the same two everyone else uses for synthetic biology, yeast and E. coli. It could pave the way to do more than terraform other planets — we could also heal ravaged and scorched parts of Earth or even fight vector-borne illnesses like malaria.
"After a manmade or natural disaster, we can think about recovering the environment," Jackson said. "These are the tools ... allowing us to go after that problem."
4. Disease resistance
"I want to stop all infectious disease from killing people," DARPA's Col. Matt Hepburn said on Tuesday. His proposition: Develop technologies that make us tolerant to infections, no matter what they are.
"The phrase we use is 'agnostic to the pathogen,'" Hepburn told Mic. "It doesn't matter what the pathogen is, we're still going to be able to make sure you're taken care of." The program is called Technologies for Host Resilience, and the idea is to find mechanisms that make hosts able to resist infectious diseases, whether they're well-known or brand-new. "It could be a wacky, strange new bacteria or something everyone gets," Hepburn said. "It won't matter."
It goes hand in hand with the quest for better, faster diagnostics, an issue that popped up in West Africa with the Ebola outbreak. "One of the tragedies of what happened with Ebola is that, if you have a fever and chills, it's very hard for us to say whether you have Ebola or malaria," Hepburn told Mic. "We could take a sample and let you know tomorrow, but what happens today? We need to get it down to a 30-minute [diagnosis]. The beauty is, multiple groups will crack the code on that, and that changes everything."
5. Hearing for the deaf
Cochlear implants, the devices used to emulate the function of an injured or degenerated cochlea (the inner ear), provide sound that's currently far from crystal-clear. DARPA project manager Phillip Alveda wants to change that. His solution: Just like computers have a modem, brains could be outfitted with a high-precision neural implant.
"We're looking for bandwidth with precision," Alveda told Mic. "[With cochlear implants,] you're listening to the combined aggregate signal of tens of thousands of neurons. It's a huge challenge to take all of that, sift through the noise and figure out what's going on."
Some universities' prototypes combine senses, like blasting a brain area with an acoustic signal to create an optical one — sound into sight and vice versa. "The challenge isn't to find one tech that can talk to a neuron," Alveda told Mic. "The challenge is integrating all of the systems that you need to do that to communicate the data into and out of the skull."
The technology exists, but what DARPA wants is to find someone actively making it work. In doing that, it could solve a massive problem, and change lives forever: making someone born deaf able to hear music as vibrantly as anyone else.
6. Computers that read for us
It shouldn't come as a surprise that, in doing deep biology research, an incredible amount of time is dedicated to reading scientific papers. Computers can read, but it's limited. It wouldn't know that "H1N1" would also be synonymous with "virus," or that volume and weight are equal to size. "You know that because you have immense common-sense knowledge and you've been reading since you were 1," DARPA's Paul Cohen said. "But how is the computer supposed to know?"
To make research faster, Cohen wants to develop computers that can read like humans — that is, not like your browser's "Find" function.
But Cohen wants to go a step further: He wants a computer that can analyze literature and build complicated machines. And according to Cohen, machines are reading thousands of articles over the summer to learn everything about Ras proteins that cause cancer. "The trick is to get computers to read like people to be able to put together these giant models," he said Wednesday. "We want machines to build the entire pathway network."
While Cohen's idea would help learn more about cancers, this could be applied to anything: ancient texts, encyclopedias and world history from the perspective of other cultures and any kind of science you could ask for. It could take the workload off researchers so they can focus on other things; it could be the gateway to understanding the unknown in a fraction of the time it's taken for centuries.
7. Using genes to fight illness and then flushing them out
According to DARPA's Col. Dan Wattendorf, 61 million cases of H1N1 could have been averted. Instead, only 1 million were avoided. Likewise, every year, flu vaccines are typically only effective 30% to 70% each year. Wattendorf wants to develop the technology to add additional, transient genes to a patient's system in order to fight diseases — and then get rid of them when the job is done.
Unlike traditional gene therapy, which permanently replaces existing genes with new genes to attempt to treat a severe, inherited disease, such as cancer arthritis, DARPA's "gene protection" proposition involves using transient genes, or ones that won't stay in the system, in order to prevent or treat an acquired disease, such as influenza or Ebola. "Because every year the flu virus changes, we have to develop a new vaccine," Wattendorf said Tuesday. "What's the ultimate protection we want them to achieve? The development of antibodies."