DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was created in 1957 as a reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. The agency was tasked with recruiting some of the brightest scientific minds in the U.S. to develop technologies that keep citizens safe and maintain our nation’s status as a leader in science.
Today, that mission continues on a variety of fronts. At SXSW Interactive, the agency’s Deputy Director, neuroscientist Justin Sanchez, and geneticist Daniel Wattendorf spoke to a packed room about DARPA’s latest initiatives.
DARPA frequently makes the news for their developments that seem like they belong on the SyFy channel, spurring headlines like CNN’s recent one stating, “U.S. military spending millions to make cyborgs a reality.”
— Camilla Yates (@camilla_y) March 12, 2016
While cyborgs aren’t quite their main objective, and what they’re doing is indeed real, Sanchez and Wattendorf revealed a few potentially high-impact projects they’re working on:
- Neurotransmitters that, when attached to the head of someone who’s suffered a complete paralysis, can allow the person to control a robotic arm. They can shake hands, give fist bumps and feel pressure on the hand. “Sidenote, we created the robotic arm, too,” Sanchez says.
- Stymieing the next outbreak of Ebola, or an even scarier not-yet-known infectious disease. How? By linking effective antibodies to human DNA or RNA and injecting it into the sick individual. “This might sound like gene therapy, but we’re not putting the antibodies on DNA or RNA that interacts with the human body,” Wattendorf explains.
- Restoring active memory in soldiers who have suffered traumatic brain injuries by attaching electrodes to the memory center inside their brains. The procedure has shown a nearly 30 percent improvement in test subjects.
- Using bioreactors (like fetal tissue) to create more blood from existing red blood cells, outside the human body — eliminating the need for blood donation. DARPA managed to do this, but at about ten times the cost.
— Adam Palmer (@AdamEcDev) March 15, 2016
It’s no secret that DARPA wants SXSW Interactive attendees to consider joining the agency to help speed up and grow their incredible innovation. Scientific stints with DARPA only last two to four years, which some of the attendees — who are usually ahead of the curve and looking to be a part of the next big thing — may find appealing.
In his final pitch to the audience, Sanchez voices the confidence of someone who has created a mind-controlled robot:
“We’re tasked with solving the world’s biggest problems. The future is only limited by our imaginations.”