“Biology is nature’s ultimate innovator, and any agency that hangs its hat on innovation would be foolish not to look to this master of networked complexity for inspiration and solutions.” – DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar, Testimony to Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities, U.S. House of Representatives, March 26, 2014
Technology, like biology, constantly evolves. It is DARPA’s mission to stay ahead of the shifting technology curve by making critical, early investments in areas that cut across fields of research and enable revolutionary new capabilities for U.S. national security. Now DARPA is poised to give unprecedented prominence to a field of research that can no longer be considered peripheral to technology’s evolving nature. Starting today, biology takes its place among the core sciences that represent the future of defense technology.
DARPA has created a new division, the Biological Technologies Office (BTO), to explore the increasingly dynamic intersection of biology and the physical sciences. Its goals are to harness the power of biological systems by applying the rigorous tools of engineering and related disciplines, and to design next-generation technologies that are inspired by insights gained from the life sciences. BTO’s programs will operate across a wide range of spatial and temporal scales—from individual cells to humans and other organisms and the communities in which they operate, and from the time it takes for a nerve to fire to the time it may take a new virus to spread around the world one sneeze at a time. All told, BTO will explore the intricate and highly adapted mechanisms of natural processes and demonstrate how they can be applied to the mission of national defense.
BTO expands on the instrumental work undertaken by DARPA’s Defense Sciences (DSO) and Microsystems Technology (MTO) Offices. Recent progress in such diverse disciplines as neuroscience, sensor design, microsystems, computer science, and other longstanding areas of DARPA investment has begun to converge, revealing newly emergent potential ready to be realized.
“The Biological Technologies Office will advance and expand on a number of earlier DARPA programs that made preliminary inroads into the bio-technological frontier,” said Geoff Ling, named by DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar to be the first director of BTO. “We’ve been developing the technological building blocks, we’ve been analyzing our results, and now we’re saying publicly to the research and development community, ‘We are ready to start turning the resulting knowledge into practical tools and capabilities.’”
The initial BTO portfolio includes programs transferred from DSO and MTO, but will also include new opportunities, beginning with the recently announced Hand Proprioception & Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) program that expands on the work of DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics and Reliable Neural-Interface Technology programs. In keeping with DARPA tradition, future programs will be created from ideas brought to the agency by program managers and through conversations with the research community.
“Before BTO, DARPA had a handful of biologists, neuroscientists, engineers, and the like, interested in synthesizing their work but distributed across different offices,” Ling said. “Now we’re under one roof, so to speak, and looking to attract a new community of scholars, who will bring a host of new ideas at the intersection of traditional and emerging disciplines.”
Three research focus areas reflect the scale and scope of BTO’s mission.
Because BTO programs push the leading edge of science, they will sometimes be society’s first encounter with the ethical, legal, or social dilemmas that can be raised by new biological technologies. For that reason, DARPA periodically convenes scholars with expertise in these issues to discuss relevant ethical, legal, and social issues.
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