DARPA may be known for pioneering the Internet and building amazing humanoid robots, but the agency isn’t all bits and bytes. It announced yesterday that a new division, the Biological Technologies Office, will be investigating how biological sciences can inform defense and be integrated into the technologies DARPA is already working on.
Arati Prabhakar, the director of DARPA, told the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities last month, "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."
BTO will focus on projects like protecting and restoring the health of service people during and after combat; creating scalable materials-manufacturing techniques based on biological processes; and learning systems engineering principles from the incredible coordination cells have within an organism. BTO might work on other things like preemptively developing vaccines and improving an amputee’s ability to control his or her prosthetic.
DARPA’s press release about BTO says, "Starting today, biology takes its place among the core sciences that represent the future of defense technology." Though the goal isn’t to develop offensive strategies like biological weapons, DARPA still notes that it will have its eye on ethical concerns: “Because BTO programs … will sometimes be society’s first encounter with the ethical, legal, or social dilemmas that can be raised by new biological technologies.” Sounds like a bottomless well of ideas for dystopian sci-fi thrillers.