I, Robot 

Meet BLEEX, the first functional human exoskeleton, which pairs human brains and mechanized brawn.

Page 7 of 9

Ironically, Berkeley's exoskeleton is funded by perhaps the one branch of the federal government that concerns itself with the fantastic more than the practical. As an agency, DARPA's directive is to dream big and to dream weird. As Walker puts it, "Our mission is to avoid technological surprise, so the US is not surprised by its adversaries, and to create technological surprise for our adversaries."

The agency was founded in 1957, only a few months after what was arguably the Cold War's biggest technological surprise: the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik. DARPA is dedicated to funding the "far side" of development: that means high-risk projects that may yield a high payoff, fundamental research for new technologies, and engineering problems that are deemed "DARPA-hard." The agency prizes innovation above all else. Program managers are replaced every four years so that they can't mother-hen favorite projects; the agency has no laboratories of its own in order to discourage it from developing institutional interests; and it doesn't take requests from the military about what to develop next. Instead, the idea is to develop technologies that may be useful to the military far in the future. "The military doesn't know to ask for something if they don't know it's possible," Walker says. "We like to be able to show the art of the possible."

Over the years, DARPA provided the funding for once-cutting-edge but now-standard technologies. Its Tacit Blue stealth fighter program led to the development of the B-2 stealth bomber; DARPA also funded research into the cruise missile engine that led to the Tomahawk. Several DARPA-funded inventions also have filtered down to quotidian use. The Internet owes its genesis to DARPA's development of TCP/IP network protocol architecture, and the agency facilitated Stanford Research Institute's invention of the computer mouse.

But over the years, DARPA has had its share of ideas fall famously flat. Perhaps most notorious are the agency's research into the possibility of telepathically spying on the Soviet Union, or its attempts to build a mechanical elephant that would enable soldiers to navigate the jungles of Vietnam. Last year, the DARPA-funded Futures Markets Applied to Prediction program proposed setting up a sort of stock exchange designed to predict world events by allowing investors to bet on the likelihood of palace coups and terrorist strikes. News of the project resulted in such moral outrage from Congress and the public that the plan was hastily scrapped and the program's head, retired Admiral John Poindexter, promptly resigned. And last month, the DARPA Grand Challenge, in which $1 million was to be awarded to the team that could pilot an unmanned robot racer from California to Nevada, ended in infamy after most of the fifteen vehicles flipped over, wandered off course, or otherwise disqualified themselves within sight of the starting line. None of the entrants completed more than eight miles of the 142-mile course.

Some of the agency's ongoing projects sound no less eyebrow-raising. It is currently funding experiments to help soldiers deal with long periods of sleep deprivation, the development of a Matrix-like mind-machine interface that would use brain activity to control machines directly, a project investigating whether bees can be trained to sniff out explosives, and one that is remote-controlling rats by planting electrodes into their brains and electronically stimulating their pleasure centers to reward them for good behavior.

The folks at DARPA claim to not know what the agency's failure rate is for getting these projects off the ground, partly because so many of the proposed projects never get to their stated goal but do end up spinning off something else of value. "Maybe you started out trying to develop X," Walker says. "You didn't get X, but you got Y, and Y is really great. So is that a failure?"

Where do exoskeletons fit into DARPA's experimental range? "When I first started this project, I thought we would be on the far end of the weird curve," Chu observes wryly. "The more I learn about DARPA, the more it seems we're on the pretty-safe-bet side of the curve."

Last month, the BLEEX project made its formal debut at the DARPA Technical Symposium in Anaheim, where grantees gathered to show off their progress. "It's like a science fair with $5 million production value," Steger says. Except at this science fair, most of the exhibits are top secret. The Cal researchers say most teams' booths feature videotapes of their projects working perfectly, but never the math or drawings explaining how they work. "They have a big flashy poster and a lot of acronyms," Steger says. "But when you start asking technical questions, everybody kind of freezes up because it's their proprietary idea and they don't want another scientist or researcher to get wind of it," Chu adds.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Feature

Author Archives

  • Thinking Outside the Cell

    For decades, the scientific establishment ignored Mina Bissell. Now her insights could revolutionize how cancer is understood and treated.
    • Dec 12, 2007
  • The Structure Is the Message

    What if cancer is triggered by changes outside the cell?
    • Dec 12, 2007
  • More»

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation