The U.S. military is already using, or fast developing, a wide range of technologies meant to give troops what California Polytechnic State University researcher Patrick Lin calls “mutant powers.” Greater strength and endurance. Superior cognition. Better teamwork. Fearlessness.
Now imagine a future battlefield teeming with amphetamine-fueled pilots, a cyborg infantry and commanders whose brains have been shocked into achieving otherwise impossible levels of tactical cunning.
These enhancements and others have tremendous combat potential, the researchers state. “Somewhere in between robotics and biomedical research, we might arrive at the perfect future warfighter: one that is part machine and part human, striking a formidable balance between technology and our frailties.”
Greater strength and endurance. Enhanced thinking. Better teamwork. New classes of genetic weaponry, able to subvert DNA. Not long from now, the technology could exist to routinely enhance — and undermine — people’s minds and bodies using a wide range of chemical, neurological, genetic and behavioral techniques.
It’s warfare waged at the evolutionary level. And it’s coming sooner than many people think. According to the futurists at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, by 2030, “neuro-enhancements could provide superior memory recall or speed of thought. Brain-machine interfaces could provide ‘superhuman‘ abilities, enhancing strength and speed, as well as providing functions not previously available.”
Qualities that today must be honed by years of training and education could be installed in a relative instant by, say, an injection or a targeted burst of electricity to the brain. Rapid advancements in neurology, pharmacology and genetics could soon make such installations fairly easy.
These modifications could give rise to new breeds of biologically enhanced troops possessing what one expert in the field calls “mutant powers.” But those troops may not American. So far, the U.S. military has been extremely reluctant to embrace human biological modification, or “biomods.” And that could result in a veritable mutant gap. In this new form of biological warfare, the U.S. could find itself outgunned.
But not if Andrew Herr can help it.
A 29-year-old Georgetown-trained researcher with degrees in microbiology, health physics and national security, Herr is one a handful of specialists in the defense community preaching greater U.S. investment in biomods. First as a consultant with the Scitor Corporation, a Virginia-based firm whose clients include top military and intelligence agencies, and later as the head of his own research organization, Herr’s job has been to think about biological modifications whose effects he says are “more than evolutionary.”
The military-industrial complex just got a little bit livelier. Quite literally.
That’s because Darpa, the Pentagon’s far-out research arm, has kicked off a program designed to take the conventions of manufacturing and apply them to living cells. Think of it like an assembly line, but one that would churn out modified biological matter — man-made organisms — instead of cars or computer parts.
The program, called “Living Foundries,” was first announced by the agency last year. Now, Darpa’s handed out seven research awards worth $15.5 million to six different companies and institutions. Among them are several Darpa favorites, including the University of Texas at Austin and the California Institute of Technology. Two contracts were also issued to the J. Craig Venter Institute. Dr. Venter is something of a biology superstar: He was among the first scientists to sequence a human genome, and his institute was, in 2010, the first to create a cell with entirely synthetic genome.
“Living Foundries” aspires to turn the slow, messy process of genetic engineering into a streamlined and standardized one. Of course, the field is already a burgeoning one: Scientists have tweaked cells in order to develop renewable petroleum and spider silk that’s tough as steel. And a host of companies are investigating the pharmaceutical and agricultural promise lurking — with some tinkering, of course — inside living cells.