In 2014, when DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the Department of Defense) first announced it was intent on creating biotechnology like cortical modems it sounded like pure science fiction. I mean, we're just now getting hoverboards. But as wild as it sounds, having a small electronic device plug into your DNA and enhance your eyesight with a Terminator-style display is not that far-fetched. DARPA just held a two-day meeting in Silicon Valley to talk about its biotech efforts and assure skeptics that devices like cortical modems will one day really be a thing. And considering DARPA is the government agency that helped create the internet, its researchers probably know what they are talking about. To push the biotech science further, they've even set up a dedicated Biological Technologies Office, which is focused on working with organic systems to improve our way of life.
Editor Peter Rothman just recounted all the details of the two-day meeting in his article for h+ magazine, and the specifics are definitely on some Robocop shit. Chief among the exciting details was more info on the cortical modem, which he describes as "a direct neural interface that will allow for the visual display of information without the use of glasses or goggles." The immediate goal is to create a device "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." But that's not all DARPA is cooking up. The event was chock-full of other futuristic, "this can't be real" details, like the construction of "materials that self assemble, heal, and adapt to their changing environment as biological systems do" and "groundbreaking prosthetics such as mind-controlled limbs."
I reached out to the Dr. Alicia Jackson, deputy director of DARPA Biological Technologies Office and asked her to give me some more information on the BiT office's big goals. "BTO is developing new technological capabilities that leverage all of the advances we've seen in engineering and computer science over the past 50 years with the recent breakthroughs in genomics, neuroscience, and biotechnology," she replied. "Our goal is to use biology as a technology to create profound breakthroughs such as providing immediate protection against any infectious disease or enabling communication through a 'cortical modem.'"
When I asked if she felt there'd been enough press on these groundbreaking advancements (I feel like there definitely hasn't been) she was very even-keeled. "We have taken a balanced approach to publicity," she said. "However, we are always looking for new, bright people to partner with. To the extent that more publicity lets more people know about what we are trying to achieve and gets them engaged and working with us, the better."
Which makes sense, as DARPA's trip to Silicon Valley sounded like it's purpose was to recruit as much as to inform the public. As Jackson explained, "we recognize we need to periodically leave our offices in Arlington and visit places like Silicon Valley that have diverse communities of technologists, researchers, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists. Furthermore, and specific to BTO, we're looking for partners outside of biology from computer science, automation, and microelectronics, who want to bring their tools to bear on the challenges we are facing."
When I asked her to sum up what she's most excited about with all these new developments, she answered with the pitch phrase "Biology is Technology." In her words, "Biology has capabilities that are truly amazing. It can self-replicate, evolve, adapt, learn, self-heal, scale, and compute. It is the most ancient and powerful technology that we know of. If we can harness biology as a technology, we may be able to solve global problems that no other technology can address."
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