Letter from the editor

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Video gamer techies are going to war... sort of

You always wondered what would become of those nutty teenage nerds who lived in a video game fantasy world, didn't you? Well, they've turned up, and they are designing the future of war for your country.

Unlike the local soldiers who bravely face danger in Iraq and Afghanistan, the designers of future wars sit in a comfortably anonymous red granite building in Arlington, Virginia - apparently one of the better kept secrets in U.S. government.

It's called DARPA, and don't feel bad if you haven't heard of it. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was created by the Eisenhower administration in tandem with NASA, a two-pronged answer to the Sputnik fears. DARPA has flown under the radar ever since.

I've been doing some reading on this agency. They are somewhere between ingenious and insane, it seems, a sort of dream factory for the U.S. Military, constantly cycling in new oddball geniuses.

DARPA's web site openly details the likes of an "electic curtain" to fight off torpedoes, biochips to monitor soldiers' health, exoskeletans that make fighters stronger and faster, a hologram soldier and lots of other mind-bending stuff.

Writer Pope Brock details some DARPA ideas that are even more cutting-edge - or over the edge, as the case may be.

There's allegedly a roachbot - a six-legged vehicle based on the cockroach, designed to replace the wheel in rough territory. Roach legs are the most sophisticated of all creatures' locomotion, simultaneously driving, listing, turning and sensing with thousands of possible combinations each fraction of a second. A fifth generation model bot has been built, and the things could see the battlefield within five years.

There are landmines capable of jumping around like checkers all on their own to fool the enemy, and guns that can pop off a million rounds a second ($10 million spent, but whoops, nobody has yet figured out how a soldier is supposed to carry a million bullets).

There are transdermal patches in the works that will feed soldiers through their skin, and a whole new science in the works known as "cellular energetics" which seeks to turbo-charge humans without eating at all, zapping energy mitochondria straight into the cells.

There is a $20 million program that would allow a soldier to go without sleep for up to seven days, patterned after techniques used by dolphins and whales, who are able to physically function while allowing one side of the brain at a time to sleep while the other stays awake.

There is a plan that would render a soldier impervious to pain with a pre-treatment they would take before going into battle, so they could keep fighting even if shot.

There is a $24 million grant helping Duke University to implant sensors into a South American owl named Belle supposedly allowing her to move a robotic arm just by thinking about it. The idea is that pilots will someday stay on the ground and fly fighter missions telepathically.

Remember those great "battlebot" TV shows that suddenly disappeared? Those guys are making throwable millibot robots to scour dangerous urban areas of the middle east. The first prototypes went to Iraq in June, and future models are expected to self deploy and work in unison like some aluminum version of the "A-Team."

There's an idea for an artificial dog nose that would be able to sniff out mines just like real dogs can, artificial human muscles, 3-D video helmets that would allow a soldier to tap into what others are seeing and hearing, chameleon uniforms that constantly change to match the color of their surrounding environment.

If it all sounds like make-believe, it isn't. It was DARPA that produced the communication system that was the beginning of the internet, the Tomahawk cruise missile, Predator drone, stealth bomber radar-invisibility, thermobombic weapons now being tested in the middle east that destroy the enemy's lungs and nervous systems simultaneously. Years ago, it invented the hand-held language translator, the folding mountain bicycle, the computer mouse, GPS satellite guidance and other forms of technology now common today.

They are a fascinating read. I wouldn't give these odd brainiacs the kind of credit deserved by the courageous young people risking their lives for us in the middle east today, and I can think of better ways this country might invest millions and millions of dollars, but in a strange way, it's comforting to know these imaginative designers exist. Or at least that they are on our side.

On the Web: See darpa.mil