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DARPA heads for robot-human hybrid: Are cyborgs on the way?

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DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, announced they are looking at developing a new generation of technologies combing biological and electronic systems. A new division of the military research and developer will experiment with technologies merging life with machines. 

The Biological Technologies Office (BTO) will use biological organisms as the basis of new defense mechanisms. Research into those fields has already been pioneered by the offices of Defense Sciences (DSO) and Microsystems Technology (MTO). 

"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," Arati Prabhakar, director of DARPA, told [pdf] members of the U.S. House of Representatives on 26 March. 

The BTO will focus on assisting those who have lost limbs, in addition to a wide variety of other projects merging humans and machines. 
Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) is among the first technologies that will be explored by the group. This project has the goal of creating artificial limbs that will provide the sensation of touch to users. 

Prabhakar told lawmakers that study of human/machine interfaces may make it possible to develop antibodies to new toxins in a month. That process can take decades using current technologies, she said. The director said such measures are needed to counter a growing threat of terrorists using biological and chemical weapons.

Technology developed by the BTO could be used to assist soldiers recovering from crippling injuries. It could also be used to enable the construction of super-soldiers, with powers far beyond human capabilities. Developments planned by the group include systems allowing soldiers to survive the loss of large quantities of blood. 

"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," agency officials wrote in the press release announcing the formation of the Biological Technologies Office.

The Chronicle of Lineage Indicative of Origins (CLIO) program may cause some controversy. That goal of the BTO will include making "biological engineering safer by... prevent[ing] illegal acquisition or misuse of proprietary strains" of organisms, DARPA reports. Large food developers like Monsanto are involved in several conflicts with small growers over patented varieties of crops. 

Geoff Ling will be the first director of the BTO. He is currently the deputy director of DARPA and is considered to be one of the most knowledgeable people in the Navy on the subject of traumatic brain injury (TBI). 

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