Secondary Logo

Share this article on:


Clancy, Frank


The Pentagon branch known as DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is often described as the military's research and development arm, but in truth its role has as much to do with imagination as science. Many of DARPA's most important questions begin, in a sense, with the words what if.

What if, DARPA asked decades ago, there were a global system of computer networks that enabled a person in Washington – or anywhere else in the world – to communicate almost instantly with other computer users around the world? Thus were the seeds of the Internet planted. What if the US military had aircraft that could evade radar? Years later, we have the F-117 Stealth Fighter. How about a satellite navigation system that allowed a person to know precisely where he or she is almost anywhere on earth? Decades later, stores sell Global Positioning System devices for less than $100.

In the 21st Century, DARPA's visionaries have turned their attention to biology, including neuroscience, hoping to mine discoveries about how the human brain works for both peaceful and aggressive purposes.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Most prominently, DARPA has supported efforts at several universities to develop technologies that enable a person to move a prosthetic limb with mere thoughts. (See Neurology Today, November 2005, Page 32). And a brand-new DARPA program known as “Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009” seeks to complete that work, sponsoring development of “a neurally controlled artificial limb that will restore full motor and sensory capability to upper extremity amputee patients.” The finished prosthesis, DARPA hopes, “will be controlled, as well as feel, look, and perform like the native limb.” The goal is to have a prosthesis ready for human clinical trials by 2009.

Not coincidentally, this same technology could easily be used for military purposes – to control a weapon no less than a limb.

Back to Top | Article Outline


DARPA was created, albeit with a different name, in 1958, just a few months after the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik into space, shattering the illusion of US technological superiority. Its mission is, in the agency's words, to promote “radical innovation for national security.” Unlike most government agencies, it is structured to encourage just that: Rather than employ staff scientists and engineers, DARPA relies on outside contractors in industry and universities to fulfill specific program objectives.

In addition, program managers – the individuals responsible for overseeing projects – typically spend four years at DARPA before returning to industry, academics, or the military.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Of DARPA's neuroscience-based initiatives, the one that's probably closest to producing useable products is known as “Improving Warfighter Information Intake Under Stress.” (DARPA often uses the term “warfighter,” rather than soldier, to make it clear that it is referring to individuals in all four branches of the military, not just “soldiers” in the Army.) Improving Warfighter Information Intake was originally conceived under the more general rubric of “Augmented Cognition,” or “AugCog,” a term that was itself coined in the summer of 2000 to describe efforts to “support and extend human cognition by taking into explicit consideration well-characterized limitations … spanning attention, memory, problem solving, and decision making.” The name was changed when “AugCog” began to attract interest far beyond its military roots; the First International Conference on Augmented Cognition was held in Las Vegas last July, as part of the 11th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction.

The principle behind Augmented Cognition is to develop “closed loop” systems in which sensors measure activity in an individual's nervous system, then feed those measurements to a computer, which in turn makes adjustments that increase the individual's abilities or efficiency. If, for example, sensors detect that a pilot is immersed in conversation, the plane's on-board computer might display key information visually. In another case, sensors might determine that a soldier in combat is already overwhelmed by stimuli and delay all but the most crucial, lifesaving information. A third system might warn of an enemy's approach from the rear by causing a special vest to vibrate in the back.

Lt. Cmdr. Dylan Schmorrow, PhD, who helped create DARPA's Augmented Cognition program and served for four years as its program manager, says the idea is to work around “information processing bottlenecks” that serve as roadblocks to increased efficiency and performance.

Industry and university researchers under contract with DARPA spent much of the past four years working on daunting technological challenges, such as developing portable EEG and near-infrared that could provide real-time feedback on brain activity. That work required “a paradigm shift in how signals were collected, processed, and classified,” said Amy Kruse, PhD, a neuroscientist and DARPA Program Manager in charge of the effort. “I can't pretend that I'm going to deploy this equipment in a military setting and only conduct experiments with someone sitting in a shielded room.”

“There are certain areas where refinement is needed,” Dr. Kruse added, “such as putting sensors in baseball caps to eliminate extraneous wiring. There is still plenty of research to be done. But I think the proof of concept is there.”



Indeed, DARPA's research has advanced far enough that it's developing applications for each of the four service branches: the Army's ultramodern Future Objective Force Warrior “individual combat system”; the Air Force's Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle control workstation; in the Navy, with Tactical Tomahawk weapons control systems; and for the Marine Corps, mobile command and control of a combat vehicle.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Pioneers in this emerging field speak of developing “cognitive prostheses” that improve cognition as seamlessly as eyeglasses improve our ability to see. Critics accuse DARPA of trying to develop a sort of superhuman cyborg – an accusation Dr. Schmorrow rejects. “I'm not talking about implanting chips in humans, or creating a race of superhumans,” he said. “I'm talking about making humans as efficient as we can.”



Yet, Dr. Schmorrow and others speak of “human-computer symbiosis,” a term that hearkens to a 1960 article by visionary psychologist and computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider. In this imagined future, he writes, “human brains and computing machines are tightly coupled, thereby achieving a partnership that surpasses the information-handling capacity of either entity alone.”

One reason augmented cognition has grown beyond its military origins is that it has potential civilian applications. Schools might, for example, Dr. Schmorrow said, use an augmented cognition system to help children with attention-deficit disorder learn to concentrate. Pilots could someday train on simulators that adjust constantly to what the individual's brain does and does not grasp. Long-distance trucks and buses could be equipped with sensors that warn drivers before they fall asleep.

Despite his enthusiasm, though, Dr. Schmorrow compares himself to a Civil War surgeon who, when treating a soldier with a bullet in his hand, had few options other than amputation. “Years from now,” he said, “I will be seen as a crude guy, coming up with these crude mitigation strategies. Today we know a lot about collecting brain information. We know how to gauge it. What we know the least about are mitigation strategies – what is the best thing to do to change the information space.”

Back to Top | Article Outline


Another DARPA program, known as Preventing Sleep Deprivation, is as simple to grasp as it is complex to achieve. As DARPA's Web site puts it, “Sleep deprivation is a fact of modern combat.” And “current operations” – not to mention soldiers' lives – “depend upon the warfighter's ability to function for extended periods of time without adequate sleep.”

This research, which is a more basic research investment than DARPA's work in augmented cognition or brain-machine interfaces, is investigating the molecular changes that occur in the brain with sleep and when a person is deprived of sleep; researchers are even looking for genes that regulate sleep.

DARPA's goal is ambitious: Enable soldiers to maintain cognitive performance after periods of sleep deprivation that correspond to those typically seen in combat and without the side effects of conventional stimulants. “Many compounds, pharmaceutical and otherwise, that are used to combat sleep deprivation are very general,” explained Dr. Kruse. “Caffeine, for example, is good at keeping you awake, but it has a very general effect on your nervous system.”

DARPA-sponsored researchers are investigating a variety of approaches, including the testing of compounds that enhance neural transmission; extracts of natural substances that stimulate the growth of neuronal cells; cognitive training; and electromagnetic devices. A related effort hopes to enable soldiers to go for as long as five days without eating.



Back to Top | Article Outline


Although some critics accuse DARPA of portraying human beings as the “weak link” in modern warfare, this new program aspires to build upon one of our strengths. “Humans are very visual creatures,” says Dr. Kruse. “One of the things we have an amazing ability to do is to pick out images. If I tell you to look very quickly at a stack of images and tell me where the bicycles are, you will be very good at that. This is something that computer vision programs are horrible at. Computers don't have the capability that we do, of deciding on the fly which images are important to us.”

Modern surveillance systems generate vast amounts of imagery that must somehow be processed and, if necessary, analyzed. Rather than have trained analysts scroll through huge satellite images, Dr. Kruse explained, this system would divide images into chunks that could be examined rapidly, with a triage system to set aside some for a second, closer examination.

“You'd be surprised at how quickly someone can recognize a target in an image – within a few hundred milliseconds of seeing it,” Dr. Kruse says. “And you get a very specific brain image.” Rather than rely on the analyst to consciously choose those crucial images, this system would look at the brain itself – that moment of recognition, however fleeting.

One obvious civilian application, Dr. Kruse said, would be to assist technicians who examine mammograms. “People who do mammography have an enormous number of images to look through. You could double check later: ‘Did I see something or did I not?’ You'd rather have a high false positive rate at that point than a false negative.”

Back to Top | Article Outline


Bioethicists watch DARPA's forays into neuroscience cautiously, at this point with more questions than answers. The real challenges will come, they say, as the military begins to put basic research into practice.

Will new drugs, for example, have a long-term impact on the body? asked Paul Root Wolpe, PhD, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at Penn's Center for Bioethics. “We need our sleep. Even though we might be able to delay our sleep, I doubt we can eliminate it.”

Will soldiers really be as alert? Will they crash afterwards? After 48 hours without sleep, will they take more risks? Will commanding officers be tempted to push soldiers too far?

The ethics, Dr. Wolpe said, “depend entirely on how it's done, and what the health consequences are.”



Jonathan D. Moreno, PhD, Director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia, has written a book about neuroscience and national security that is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2006. He wonders, among other things, how our ever-expanding ability to fight wars without risking American lives will affect decisions about whether and when to fight. “It's hard to argue that it's better to lose human lives if you're fighting a just war,” he said. On the other hand, leaders might be more tempted than ever to make pre-emptive strikes or otherwise stretch the boundaries of what is acceptable. “That's part of the story of Twentieth-Century weaponry,” he conceded. “It's maybe too easy for us to think we can get away with waging war.”

Back to Top | Article Outline


Both men worry also about where military researchers might go: What if pharmacologists develop drugs that enhance trust? How might they be misused? And what of memory? “If a neuroscientist can find a way to enhance memory in a systematic way, I guarantee it will be of interest to the military,” Dr. Moreno said. “'If you build it, they will come.' Everything is of interest.”

What happens, Dr. Wolpe asked, when a computer begins to have some rudimentary knowledge of a person's emotional state? “In some cases, the machine will make an intervention,” he said. “They're actually talking about machines that respond to emotional context. When we begin to have a relationship that has an affective component with our machines, we open up a whole new set of questions. I'm not saying it's necessarily improper. There are new questions, about the type of relationship, and how far it should go.”

As technologies move into civilian life, more questions arise.

Dr. Moreno is careful to say he is not bashing DARPA. “I think society needs to talk about the work that DARPA is sponsoring,” he said. “And DARPA needs society to talk about the work. Because the alternative is that it will all go underground.”

But the public conversation about potential military uses of neuroscience, Dr. Moreno claims, has been inadequate. “There is a general tendency to get lazy,” he said, “and to talk about it in terms of science fiction, instead of what science can and cannot do.” Neuroscientists, he argues, need to become fully and vigorously involved in public discussions about military research, much as scientists now participate in discussions of stem cell research.

While researching his book, Dr. Moreno found that many neuroscientists (though not DARPA officials) were willing to talk. But they didn't want their names published. “I think that's because the brain is so sensitive,” he said. “It's understandable they're so reluctant. There are no conspiracy theories about people trying to control our hearts. There are a lot of people who are worried about the CIA controlling their minds.”

Dr. Wolpe offers an example of how public discussion can help. A few years ago, he said, the military considered trying to devise a way to implant digital cameras in pilots' eyes, so rescuers could find them if captured. But the enemy would have a simple if inelegant solution: Gouge out the pilot's eyes.

“There are ethical considerations that need to be thought about in advance,” Dr. Wolpe says. “In a peer-reviewed journal, your naïve assumptions are constantly bombarded by peers, if you're foolish enough to publish them. These technologies are enormously complicated, and some of the ethical problems are not immediately obvious.”

Back to Top | Article Outline


  • ✓The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is hoping to use neuroscience to mine discoveries that could lead to new applications – from neural-controlled artificial limbs to agents, which would help prevent sleep in soldiers.
©2006 American Academy of Neurology