DARPA looking to edit soldiers’ DNA to boost performance

Published 4 February 2010

DARPA has budgeted $7.5 million in hopes of “increas[ing] by several decades the speed with which we sequence, analyze and functionally edit cellular genomes”; the agency is also looking for a cybersecurity system which will not rely on technicians to patch security holes once they are found, but will instead have the instincts to go it alone

DARPA — where, according to Lewis Page, they “believe it is better to invent a head-mounted multispectral imaging device than curse the darkness” — is at it again. The Pentagon’s restless scientific research agency has big plans for next year: crowdsourcing military intelligence, creating an “immune system” for Defense Department networks, and even research that might one day lead to editing a soldier’s DNA.

Katie Drummond writes that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency its budget for the upcoming year. As our readers might have come to expect from the Pentagon’s push-the-enevlope science and technology division, there are some intriguing new projects on tap.

Military analysts are already overwhelmed by too much information. Instead of training more analysts or handing data over to computers, DARPA wants to improve how the military uses its intelligence information by turning it into an open call for contribution. The $13 million dollar project, called “Deep ISR Processing by Crowds,” looks “to harness the unique cognitive and creative abilities of large numbers of people to enhance dramatically the knowledge derived from ISR systems.”

Crowdsourcing is already used among businesses and other government agencies to generate more innovative ideas that draw on as many sources as possible. DARPA wants that innovation to take over individual analysis and decision-making:

Novel frameworks will be developed to capture the experience base of users and systems to allow problem partitioning, quantitative confidence assessment, and validation in environments that may be partially compromised by adversaries.

Drummond writes that when it comes to cybersecurity, DARPA’s taking inspiration from nature, with “Cyber Immune” — a defense model for the Pentagon’s computing systems that is able to detect an attack, fight back, and even heal itself automatically to prevent subsequent infiltration.






The current model for cybersecurity, dubbed “perimeter defense,” uses firewalls that hackers try to break through. Once they make it inside, they have got free rein, and the compromised system is vulnerable to ongoing outside attacks until the firewall is rebuilt. Instead of technicians who patch holes as they find them, DARPA wants a system with the instincts to go it alone, and that “assume[s] security cannot be absolute, yet … can still defend itself in order to maintain its (possibly degraded) capabilities, and possibly even heal itself.”

DARPA is also living up to its mad-science reputation, with ambitious plans to fast-track mastery over the human genome. DARPA has budgeted $7.5 million in hopes of “increas[ing] by several decades the speed with which we sequence, analyze and functionally edit cellular genomes.”

Editing DNA could have widespread implications, but DARPA seems most interested in two: microchip implants that restore senses and movement in traumatic injury patients, and the ongoing DARPA goal of boosting troop performance:

On the other end of the size scale, a primary goal is to apply microsystem techniques to soldier-protective biomedical systems. One example is an in-canal hearing protection device that will provide enhanced hearing capabilities in some settings, but be able to instantly muffle loud sounds of weapons fire. This one example will improve inter-personnel communications and at the same time drastically reduce the incidence of hearing loss in combat situations. For these examples and many more, the goal is to bring exceptionally potent technical approaches to bear on biological and biomedical applications where their capabilities will be significant force multipliers for the DoD.