The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) recently announced progress on a pair of characteristically futuristic projects: a computer chip that works like the human brain and a mission to visit a nearby star. Right off the bat, these two pursuits sound pretty far-fetched and incredibly expensive, but that's been the government agency's modus operandi since it was founded during the Cold War in order to develop a response to Russia's Sputnik satellite. Today, Darpa describes itself as "100 geniuses connected by a travel agent" and even though it's technically a part of the Defense Department, it operates sort of like a research and development start-up. A lot of Darpa projects sound like they were pulled out of Isaac Asimov novels, but sometimes science fiction concepts become world-changing innovations. Darpa, after all, did invent the Internet and GPS. But some of the others? Well, they're certainly ambitious:
Cognitive Computing - With Darpa funding, IBM and university researchers have been developing a computer chip that mimics the processes of the human brain. "IBM’s so-called cognitive computing chips could one day simulate and emulate the brain’s ability to sense, perceive, interact and recognize--all tasks that humans can currently do much better than computers can," reports Dean Takahashi at VentureBeat.
The 100-Year Starship Study - The name says it all. In a century-long project with NASA, Darpa wants to fund an organization that will build a spaceship that can fly to another star. The $500,000 seed grant will be awarded on November 11, 2011 (11/11/11), and researchers couldn't be more excited about the Star Trek-style mission. "If you want to have a hobby, why can’t it be designing an interstellar spacecraft?" said Andreas Tziolas, director of Project Icarus.
The World's Fastest Airplane - Last week, Darpa lost the unmanned Falcon HTV-2 glider in an attempt to set a speed record for flight. Grandfathered in from the Cold War arms race, the Falcon was designed to enable the U.S. military deliver a bomb anywhere in the world in less than an hour. With a top speed around 14,000 miles per hour--20 times the speed of sound--the Falcon can fly from New York to Los Angeles in 12 minutes. As soon as Darpa figures out where it went.
Battery-Powered Human Exoskeleton - If you're an Iron Man fan, you'll love the Human Universal Load Carrier, or to stick to the comic book theme, Hulc. Designed to enable soldiers to carry loads of 200 pounds or more over long distances, the hydraulic-powered robotic addition was named one of the best inventions of 2010 by Time Magazine.
Insect Cyborgs - Darpa's been working on tiny drones that resemble flying bugs or tiny birds. Designed to go places that soldiers cannot, the insect cyborgs could ostensibly work as spies or in swarms as weapons. Darpa's request for proposals suggested building the cyborgs with the ability to grow from a larvae state to an adult so they can be carried around by animals. Darpa wanted "the delivery of an insect within five meters of a specific target located at hundred meters away, using electronic remote control, and/or global positioning system."
Synthetic Blood - Since soldiers die too often of blood loss in the field, Darpa set out to create synthetic blood that could be more easily transported. After only two years of development, the genetically engineered blood is getting close to have a finished product.
Flying submarine - Since 2008, Darpa has been working on an airplane that can both fly and go underwater. "You might have to put the nose down and literally dive, smack, into the water. It would certainly be spectacular," said Graham Hawkes, a submarine designer who's built a similar vehicle.
Mind-controlled prosthetic limbs - Darpa isn't the only one working on this, but they're making major headway designing prosthetics that connect to the human brain. Unlike other robotic prosthetics, Darpa's limb would require an implant in the human brain that would allow the arm or leg to move the limb by simply thinking about it.
Flying armored car - Again, this is exactly what it sounds like. Compared to other Darpa inventions, this one's a relative bargain at $203,000 per vehicle. It's literally called the Transformer.