From Cyborg Cockroaches to Mecha Meme Warriors: DARPA’s DARP-est Projects

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) receives almost $3 billion a year to fund pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.” Best known today for its role in the development of the Internet, DARPA also has the misfortune of being among the creepiest federal agencies, which is at least partly deliberate. Case in point: its post-911 Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, which had a name, mission, and logo out of Alex Jones’ (or Michel Foucault’s) worst nightmares.

This was the actual Information Awareness Office (IAO) logo.

Like many other DARPA projects, and despite the fact that it was formally defunded in 2003, TIA was a spine-tingling portent of things to come. That’s why you should glance over this assortment of particularly strange DARPA projects. Not everything DARPA does is sinister, but some of these things come mighty close.

1. Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) program (AKA, cyborg cockroaches)

Have you ever yearned to unleash an unholy army of vermin on your enemies? For too long, that dream was out of reach to all but Crispin Glover. Thankfully, DARPA-funded scientists have brought us closer to the day when we can rattle, battle or literally bug our foes with cyborg insects.

Cockroach or mock-roach?

Beginning in 2006, DARPA funded the development of cyborg insects through the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) Program. Why? As it turns out, it’s pretty difficult to design insect-sized robots that meet Department of Defense (DoD) standards (they’ve funded those research too). Also, in insects that undergo complete metamorphosis, it’s relatively easy to meld arthropod with machine during pupation.

Wait, were you asking why we need this technology? To deploy “swarms” of cyborg insects during search and rescue missions, of course. After all, if you were trapped in a burning building, wouldn’t you be reassured to see and hear a wave of hissing Madagascar cockroaches scuttling towards you through the flames?

Inspired by the DARPA-funded Charles Ellington and others, mechanical engineers were soon developing the theoretical and practical underpinnings of insect cyborg technology. By 2009, scientists receiving DARPA support had developed “radio-controlled cyborg beetles” that could be turned right or left during flight by 2 V, 100 hz positive potential pulses. At North Carolina State University, Alper Bozkurt and colleagues experimented with delivering remote-controlled “biobots” using helium balloons. Sadly, 2009 appears to mark the zenith of DARPA-funded cyborg insect research. DARPA’s HI-MEMS project page no longer works, and much of the state-sponsored research in this area has apparently moved abroad. Or maybe the DoD has just gotten quieter.

After reading all this, I’m sure your first reaction is to ask how your kids can get involved. Never fear — for the youngest Frankensteins, Backyard Brains already offers a $160 DIY cockroach surgery kit, the PETA-protested RoboRoach (not to be confused with an inexplicable 2004 Canadian television show of the same name). Cockroaches are sold separately, though enterprising youngsters could surely trap some of their own.

2. DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office (STO) (AKA, the portal to perpetual war)

After September 11th, the American people entered into an unspoken, unwritten, and permanently enforceable contract with the defense establishment. Post-Soviet reverie had given way to an epoch of perpetual war, waged against poorly-defined concepts and decentralized insurgents on the outer fringes of American power.

More than fifteen years later, the United States and its allies are enmeshed in open-ended, often secretive operations in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Many of these are so-called Gray Zone conflicts, which a white paper from the US Special Operation Command defines as “competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality.” In other words, we don’t have to declare war to go around enforcing peace. So what else is new?

Enter DARPA and its Strategic Technologies Office (STO). Though the STO’s many layers of gray-souled bureaucratic jargon can be exhausting, its homepage does reveal a lot about the new normal in defense, casually noting that the U.S. military has become accustomed to collecting large quantities of [Information, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] data in permissive environments.”

The STO’s March 2017 “Broad Agency Announcement” (BAA), intended to solicit proposals for revolutionary research on topics germane to that office, details a number of chilling and/or thrilling scenarios for the future of American combat. One focus area requests ideas for Systems of Systems (SoS) enhanced technology to improve the effectiveness of small military units. The opening paragraph describes a well-nigh inevitable mecha-Thermopylae:

Future U.S. land forces are increasingly likely to face an adversary force that is overwhelmingly superior in size and armament. DARPA is interested in system and SoS capabilities that could enable a small unit (~200 soldiers, corresponding materiel footprint, and limited rear-echelon support) to defeat or at least deter and delay this overwhelming adversary.” (bolding added)

In its “Situational Understanding” focus area, the STO’s BAA requests methods that will improve its sensing capabilities in Gray Zone conflicts or dense megacities, adding that this sensing “may also include exploitation of indigenous sensing.” Yes, you should be worried about your smart TV spying on you.

3. The Narrative Networks program/Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) (AKA, cyberwar is the continuation of politics by other memes)

With the Narrative Networks program, DARPA set out to identify, understand, and “apply” key narratives in strategically important regions. The folks in Arlington are quite curious about how narratives shape human beings, from society on down to the brain itself. This is particularly interesting in light of the alleged Meme Warfare Center proposal circulated in March. As it turns out, that widely-retweeted image actually originated in the master’s thesis of one Michael Prosser, now CO of Combat Logistics Regiment 1 at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Using Richard Dawkins’ original definition of memes as “units of cultural transmission” or of “imitation,” Prosser published this thesis in 2006, several years before the term “internet meme” was, well, a meme:

Searches for the term “Internet meme” from 2004 to the present.

Ultimately, though, the notion that America’s military and intelligence branches have weaponized memes is not particularly far-fetched. For example, DARPA’s July 2011 Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) BAA shows that DARPA has long been interested in shaping narratives on the Internet. In that document, DARPA requests proposals for software and algorithms to help the US military rapidly identify and thwart damaging memes. It’s been six years since DARPA’s request went out; it almost goes without saying that the Great Meme War has already begun.

4. The Prometheus program (AKA, short-circuiting the next global pandemic)

I can’t resist writing about a program title this cool. Nor could NASA in its failed nuclear spacecraft propulsion program of roughly the same name.

DARPA’s Prometheus program has the makings of a high-concept sci-fi movie. DARPA wants to be able to find out which people who are infected by a given pathogen will end up becoming contagious. More specifically, they want to be able to learn this before symptoms appear and within 24 hours of infection. The relevant BAA notes that the project will involve extensive testing on humans exposed to respiratory pathogens.

Prometheus suffering from a recurrent affliction.

As far as we know, nothing has gone terribly, terribly wrong at any laboratories funded by this program. Unfortunately for me and my scaremongering agenda, this program seems commendable in a relatively uncomplicated way. If the price of progress is a few hundred cases of the common cold, I’m sold.

5. The Warrior Web program/the Living Foundries program (AKA, engineering super soldiers)

Although “Warrior Web” may sound like a crudely designed, Pentagon-sanctioned social media site for active duty troops, it’s a legitimately exciting development. With this program, DARPA is trying to develop a lightweight robotic undersuit that can protect soldiers from musculoskeletal injury and enhance their capabilities during combat. As described in a paper from DARPA-funded scientists at Harvard, this sort of undersuit represents an improvement over traditional rigid exoskeletons, which can hamper the natural biomechanics of walking. It also brings us closer to the normalization of (non-cockroach) cyborgs and, inevitably, to a new frontier for social justice — cyborg rights.

Though perhaps unsettling to potential enemy combatants, the Warrior Web program seems positively benign when compared with DARPA’s investments in DNA bioengineering. The MIT-Broad Foundry, which models its industrial-scale DNA production and testing processes on high-throughput chip manufacturing, received a $32 million grant from DARPA through the second component of DARPA’s “Living Foundries” program. DARPA is funding similar foundries at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Illinois, the University of Colorado, and the biotech companies Zymergen and Amyris. The “Living Foundries: 1000 Molecules” BAA makes it clear that DARPA wants grantees to fabricate molecules with value to the DoD. And which molecules interest the DoD? An Office of Technical Intelligence (OTI) overview indicates that the DoD wants to know how synthetic biology can be used to enhance human performance; indeed, the military’s “unique human performance needs” supposedly make it unlikely that private sector investment alone would yield defense-critical innovations in this area. That same overview concedes that “past abuses” make it harder to test this sort of stuff on (or in) military personnel.

I don’t expect the DoD to trot out a platoon of genetically enhanced super soldiers anytime soon. But the next time an Internet tough guy tells you he’s a Navy SEAL with over 300 confirmed kills, think twice before antagonizing him further. He could be a damn cyborg.