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Eleventh Hour: Super Soldiers and Beyond

Science Not FictionBy Eric WolffNovember 22, 2008 11:18 AM


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The military's most farseeing agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, required the services of Eleventh Hour's Jacob Hood in last night's episode to figure who violently killed some test-chimps and a veterinarian in the agency's super soldier program. It seems a mad scientist had found some way to increase the size of a human amygdala, which led the soldier to have extreme, and unthinking, fight-or-flight reactions. Whenever someone approached this super soldier in a threatening way, he reacted with extreme prejudice. Naturally, the mad scientist wasn't supposed to be testing on people, which is why by the end of the show he was off to prison. But DARPA is pretty serious about improving the, ahem, human component of soldiering. After decades of focusing on machines (like unmanned flying drones, GPS, and Internet), DARPA decided toward the end of the 1990s to focus on improving the actual biology of the soldiers. Contrary to the show, the goal is not extremely obedient killers. The modern military is focused on small teams functioning independently, far from base and reinforcements of any kind. To succeed in this kind of environment, they want to actually increase the ability of soldiers to think creatively, to stay awake longer, and to be physically active longer without becoming tired. With a major hattip to Wired's excellent Dangerous Nation blog, here's a sample of the lines of research DARPA is pursuing: Studying how dolphins are able to sleep with just half their brains, figuring how Iditarod sled dogs can run thousands of miles without depleting their fat and glycogen reserves, and how to copy a pig's ability to eat just about anything. Not everyone is comfortable with this kind of souped up people, though. In 2002, Congress panicked about funding an army of super men. Administrator Michael Goldblatt, one of the most enthusisatic futurists in government, was booted out, and DARPA dialed back some of its activities, or at least, dialed back the names of the work. But they also shifted some funding away from biological activities and toward advanced materials. MIT, for one, came in for a $50 million Army grant to use nanotechnology to build the super suit of the future. Maybe we can be a little more comfortable with that.

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