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14:42:05 02/11/19101:

                     DARPA's Disruptive Technologies  
                     By David Talbot09/21/01 .../mil_c4i_092101a_j.htm 
In DARPA's view, the next challenge will be linking  
biology and computing to the science of the very small,  
through devices that can detect, influence, interpret  
and communicate what's happening in living cells. And  
so DARPA this year kicked off an ambitious $35 million,  
four-year effort called Bio:Info:Micro. As Alexander  
told a group of researchers last fall, there's a growing  
sense that merging biology with computing and microsystems  
"is something really new and revolutionary. In a lot of  
cases, we can't quite put our finger on it, but all of us,  
as technologists, think that this is a very promising area." 
Two basic programs aim to fire early salvos in this predicted  
revolution. The first attempts to advance brain-machine  
interfaces-technologies that tap brain signals to control  
a variety of mechanical and electrical devices and can also  
send signals into the brain to stimulate neurons. This program  
has a solid starting point: already, DARPA-funded groups from  
Duke University, Caltech and elsewhere have built devices  
(tested only on animals so far) that can be surgically  
implanted in the brain to detect neural signals and send  
those impulses via wires to computers. The computers decode  
the signals, then transmit control instructions to devices  
like robotic arms (see "Brain-Machine Interface," TR  
January/February 2001). 
Linking brains to robotic arms is an awe-inspiring feat.  
But every component and process in these early systems  
needs loads of work. And that's where DARPA comes in.  
"We in the field have demonstrated the feasibility of  
direct communication with the brain," says Daryl Kipke,  
an associate professor of bioengineering at the  
University of Michigan who is leading one of three  
DARPA-funded university teams working on brain-machine  
interfaces. Now, he says, the challenge is to vastly  
improve this communication with help from the thrust's  
three basic disciplines. Kipke's team will work to  
improve existing MEMS implants, adding a microfluidic  
device to deliver drugs to the implant site. Biologists  
will seek to identify which molecules should be used to  
make neurons grow, stay healthy and not form scar tissue.  
And finally, computer scientists are improving brain-data  
If such systems ever get perfected, they could enable  
direct nervous-system control of prosthetic limbs, and  
even the realization of visions like mind-controlled  
mechanical "exoskeletons" that enable troops to exceed  
the limits of their normal strength and endurance, says  
Alan Rudolph, manager of DARPA programs developing robots  
based on biological designs. "The ability to have direct  
brain-to-machine links," he notes, "could in fact augment  
the ability of a human to deal with [all manner of]  
complex systems." 
The second part of DARPA's Bio:Info:Micro program funds  
fundamental research aimed at advancing the understanding  
and control of one of life's most elemental components-the  
communication network within a cell. A collaboration at MIT,  
one of three universities where DARPA is funding such studies,  
includes an engineer aiming to perfect microfluidic devices  
that can quickly measure thousands of protein interactions,  
a biologist extracting the cellular proteins needed to detect  
these interactions-and computer scientists developing algorithms  
to make sense of the torrent of data that should result. While  
DARPA isn't the only group supporting these kinds of initiatives,  
"I'm not aware of other funding agencies...trying to advance all  
three of them simultaneously," says Douglas A. Lauffenburger,  
codirector of MIT's Division of Bioengineering and Environmental  
Health and leader of DARPA's Bio:Info:Micro team at MIT. 
The work could point the way toward extremely sensitive sensors  
for detecting disease in the body or chemicals in the environment.  
It could also lead to new approaches to building complex systems- 
from robots to software-modeled after the extraordinary adaptability  
and ruggedness of ordinary cells. "Cells are designed to carry out  
very robust, reliable, simple sets of behaviors under highly  
variable, unpredictable conditions," says Lauffenburger. But the  
research is so fundamental, he adds, it's hard to predict what the  
first payoff might be. 


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