In John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, the home planet’s military consists of old folks who join the fight because they have nothing left to lose. Of course, they can’t just battle as is—they need some pretty serious upgrades first. They get BrainPals, which allow them to telepathically communicate with their comrades, as well as access information. They also get genetic and physiological upgrades in the form of new bodies designed from their DNA and that allow them all kinds of impressive new skills ranging from super strength to cat vision.
Could this happen? Could we upgrade people, octogenarians or not, and turn them into super soldiers?
DARPA seems to think so.
In 2010, DARPA announced its BioDesign project, designed to create “synthetic organisms” to replace those natural organisms—ie, people—that are limited by “the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement.” One of those limitations is mortality. DARPA’s answer is to create fortified organisms with death-resistant cells that ultimately will result in their ability to live “indefinitely.” Of course, that’s a double-edged sword, so they’ll be genetically engineered to be loyal, too—or at least, “tamper proof.” They’ll have traceable identity numbers in case they go MIA and if all else fails, they’ve got a genetic kill switch.
BioDesign coupled with DARPA’s synthetic biology program, as well as DARPA’s recently established Biotech Division shows just how serious DARPA is when it comes to creating super soldiers. I think I’d feel more comfortable if they started as old folks first before getting enhanced. These synthetic organisms are…well, synthetic. Can they be genetically coded to have compassion or the wisdom of experience? That would make them less ruthless fighters, so we’ll likely never find out.
Recently, the BioDesign program got an additional $8 million to continue their work with synthetic organisms. DARPA also founded the Living Foundries program to “leverage the unparalleled synthetic and functional capabilities of biology to create a revolutionary, biologically-based manufacturing platform to provide access to new materials, capabilities and manufacturing paradigms” by “transform[ing] biology into an engineering practice by developing the tools, technologies, methodologies, and infrastructure to speed the biological design-built-test-learn cycle and expand the complexity of systems that can be engineered.” So maybe the soldiers of the future will be more like synthetic humans and less like T-800 robots, but I’m not sure that makes me feel any better. What’s also not particularly comforting is that some of the modification techniques involve combining modified DNA with a virus, and injecting that cocktail into the human body. The altered DNA would attach to the existing DNA when the virus permeates the cells. What could possibly go wrong?
One of the advantages DARPA hopes to create for its futuristic soldiers is the ability to survive major blood loss. They’re working on techniques such as metabolism self-regulation to maintain the functioning of cells even if they don’t get oxygen due to blood loss. They may be able to induce something akin to hibernation that would allow soldiers to survive for hours, even days, before treatment.
DARPA has also initiated a biochronicity program to try and identify the relationships between biology and the passage of time. We’ve all heard of the biological clock that supposedly motivates females’ reproductive drives, but biological clocks do a lot more than that, especially on a cellular level as we age. DARPA believes that unlocking secrets about the way time affects the body will help the medical treatment of soldiers, as well as the survival of blood loss; it could also improve their performance in battle.
Scientists both inside and outside DARPA have been making strides toward creating these synthetic organisms. Recently, researchers built an artificial yeast chromosome, which included about 50,000 modifications from the original. It imbued the yeast chromosome with artificial traits, including the ability to rearrange itself when chemically induced. This is a yeast-based organism, rather than a replica. DARPA’s soldiers will probably be similar, with all kinds of new traits that will allows them to bleed less, sleep less, lift more weight, run faster, and fight harder and better.
A DARPA-designed synthetic organism wouldn’t have to play by nature’s rules, which is precisely the point, but also the problem—at least, depending your ethical stance. Transhumanists wouldn’t object, though plenty of others might. This sounds a little bit like Captain America to me, but better that than Avatar, I suppose.