Weaponiz­ing weird ideas

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book re­view by Dina Tem­ple-Ras­ton

Sev­eral years ago, the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (DARPA) be­gan look­ing into a new med­i­cal pro­ce­dure called tran­scra­nial di­rect-cur­rent stim­u­la­tion, or tDCS. To the out­sider, the ex­per­i­ments looked more Mary Shel­ley than cut­ting-edge neu­rol­ogy. Sci­en­tists taped sponges laced with me­tal to var­i­ous parts of a pa­tient’s scalp and then hooked them up to a small 9-volt bat­tery — just like the ones in smoke de­tec­tors or old tran­sis­tor ra­dios. Then the sci­en­tists sent a small elec­tri­cal pulse to the brain and watched to see what would hap­pen.

What they dis­cov­ered was ex­tra­or­di­nary: Stroke pa­tients im­proved their mo­tor skills, chronic pain suf­fer­ers ap­peared to find re­lief, and the stim­u­la­tion seemed to help some pa­tients with learn­ing. It was this last rev­e­la­tion that in­ter­ested DARPA most. The agency gave sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of New Mexico a grant to see whether tDCS might have a mil­i­tary ap­pli­ca­tion— specif­i­cally, whether it

could be used to help sol­diers train faster.

En­ter­tain­ing the idea of a bet­ter mil­i­tary through the ju­di­cious use of a 9-volt bat­tery goes a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing why the mere men­tion of DARPA of­ten is ac­com­pa­nied by a full caseload of moral judg­ments. The agency has long had a habit of es­chew­ing po­lit­i­cal correctness and shrug­ging off what peo­ple might say or think so it can put science first. It has never wor­ried about how un­con­ven­tional re­search might look on the front page of, say, The Washington Post. That at­ti­tude has led to no­table suc­cesses but also some trou­bling out­comes. DARPA is re­spon­si­ble for stealth tech­nol­ogy, tank sim­u­la­tors and the M-16 ri­fle on the one side of the ledger, but on the other side data-min­ing pro­grams such as To­tal In­for­ma­tion Aware­ness and the re­search that led to harsh in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques used on pris­on­ers af­ter 9/11.

An­nie Ja­cob­sen ex­plores that ten­sion in her fas­ci­nat­ing new book, “The Pen­tagon’s Brain,” which she presents as the first com­pre­hen­sive history of an agency many Amer­i­cans may not even know ex­ists. Ja­cob­sen tracks DARPA’s begin­nings as an in­for­mal gath­er­ing of sci­en­tists strug­gling with prob­lems of the Cold War and al­lows read­ers to see its trans­for­ma­tion into what it is to­day: a high-tech in­cu­ba­tor that in­tro­duces the new­est tech­nolo­gies, for good or ill, to sol­diers on the bat­tle­field.

Ac­cord­ing to Ja­cob­sen, many of DARPA’s orig­i­nal mem­bers were work­ing in the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia of­fices of the Rand Corp. think tank in the 1950s. At the time, they were churn­ing out re­ports about nu­clear weaponry and dooms­day sce­nar­ios. Ja­cob­sen writes that “com­pe­ti­tion was val­ued and en­cour­aged at RAND, with sci­en­tists and an­a­lysts al­ways work­ing to outdo one another.” And nowhere was that com­pet­i­tive spirit more ap­par­ent than at lunchtime, when the sci­en­tists be­gan play­ing Kriegspiel, a chess vari­ant once fa­vored by the Ger­man mil­i­tary. With maps of the world spread across lunch ta­bles, the great minds of the Cold War era would spend hours on the game. “Lunchtime war games in­cluded at least one per­son in the role of um­pire,” Ja­cob­sen writes, “which usu­ally pre­vented com­pe­ti­tions from get­ting out of hand. Still, tem­pers flared, and some­times game pieces scat­tered.”

The master of these games, by Ja­cob­sen’s ac­count, was a math­e­ma­ti­cian and for­mer child prodigy named John von Neu­mann. He was con­sid­ered so bright that he was hired by Rand’s math­e­mat­ics di­vi­sion on rather un­usual terms: He was sup­posed to “write down his thoughts each morn­ing while shav­ing, and for those ideas he would be paid $200 a month — the av­er­age salary of a full-time RAND an­a­lyst at the time.” Even­tu­ally, he was also charged with a rather del­i­cate pro­ject. He per­formed the pre­cise cal­cu­la­tions that de­ter­mined at what al­ti­tude over Hiroshima and Na­gasaki the atomic bombs had to ex­plode in or­der to kill the max­i­mum num­ber of civil­ians on the ground. He de­ter­mined that height was 1,800 feet.

Von Neu­mann was one of the orig­i­nal mem­bers of DARPA and its pre­cur­sor or­ga­ni­za­tions. Other no­ta­bles in­cluded John Wheeler, a Prince­ton Univer­sity physi­cist who coined the term “black hole”; Herb York, the first di­rec­tor of Lawrence Liver­more Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory; the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Ed­ward Teller; and a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Marvin “Murph” Gold­berger.

It wasn’t un­til Congress for­mally cre­ated DARPA in 1958 that its key ad­vis­ers moved from the lunch ta­bles at Rand and other think tanks and took on a more con­ven­tional shape. What were once brain­storm­ing ses­sions at sum­mer homes on the Cape be­came of­fi­cial meet­ings at the Na­tional War Col­lege at Fort McNair in Washington. The De­fense Depart­ment gave the group a code name— Pro­ject 137 — and the sci­en­tists re­ceived se­cu­rity clear­ances so they could dis­cuss sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion while they iden­ti­fied “pro­grams not now re­ceiv­ing ad­e­quate at­ten­tion” in the na­tional se­cu­rity realm.

While the full ar­ray of those pro­grams is still clas­si­fied, Ja­cob­sen does a good job giv­ing read­ers a sense of what it was like to be in the room. “The scope of the na­tional se­cu­rity threats fac­ing the na­tion left many of the Pro­ject 137 sci­en­tists with a deep sense of fore­bod­ing,” she says. Quot­ing from Wheeler’s af­ter-ac­tion re­port: “The group has de­vel­oped a stronger feel­ing for and deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the great cri­sis with which the na­tion is faced. The group senses the rapidly in­creas­ing dan­ger into which we are in­ex­orably head­ing.”

Wheeler’s re­port is just one of the many sources Ja­cob­sen calls upon to un­cover de­tails about DARPA’s se­cre­tive gov­ern­ment projects. She has some ex­pe­ri­ence writ­ing about these kinds of covert pro­grams. Her pre­vi­ous book, “Op­er­a­tion Pa­per­clip: The Se­cret In­tel­li­gence Pro­gram That Brought Nazi Sci­en­tists to Amer­ica,” used newly de­clas­si­fied doc­u­ments to re­veal de­tails about a U.S. ef­fort to em­ploy Nazi sci­en­tists as ar­ma­ment spe­cial­ists dur­ing the Cold War. DARPA, she­makes clear, was cre­ated in a sim­i­lar at­mos­phere— a fever­ish post-Sput­nik era when in­vest­ing in arms and tech­nol­ogy seemed like the only way to stay ahead of the Sovi­ets.

Fast-for­ward to to­day: With its $3 bil­lion an­nual bud­get and its ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies and pro­grams, DARPA is the force be­hind some of the world’s coolest giz­mos. These run the gamut from the Global Po­si­tion­ing Sys­tem to pros­thetic hands that may give am­putees a sense of touch. Ja­cob­sen il­lus­trates DARPA’s Zelig-like qual­ity of ap­pear­ing cen­ter stage at opportune mo­ments when it is least ex­pected. Case in point: the 2001 an­thrax scare that shut­tered the Se­nate’s Hart Build­ing. “DARPA was asked to pro­vide science ad­vi­sors to help,” Ja­cob­sen writes. The ap­proach they took was based on tech­nol­ogy that DARPA’s De­fense Science Of­fice had de­vel­oped af­ter an E. coli out­break at Jack in the Box restau­rants in 1993: self-ster­il­iz­ing pack­ages trig­gered by light or hu­mid­ity. DARPA adapted that tech­nol­ogy to help it quickly de­con­tam­i­nate the of­fice build­ing.

Then there is my per­sonal fa­vorite: the Stealthy In­sect Sen­sor Pro­ject, which used hon­ey­bees to lo­cate bombs. “Bees have sens­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties that out­per­form the dog’s nose by a tril­lion parts per sec­ond,” Ja­cob­sen writes. “Us­ing Pavlo­vian tech­niques, sci­en­tists cooled down groups of bees in a re­frig­er­a­tor, then strapped them into tiny boxes us­ing mask­ing tape, leav­ing their heads, and most of the an­ten­nae, pok­ing out the top. Us­ing a sugar wa­ter re­ward sys­tem, the sci­en­tists trained the bees to use their tongues to ‘sniff out’ ex­plo­sives, re­sult­ing in a re­ac­tion the sci­en­tists call a ‘purr.’ . . . The bees were tested with var­i­ous ex­plo­sives, in­clud­ing TNT and C4” and were work­ing well.

“But when the Army learned that DARPA planned to send bees to Iraq as a coun­ter­mea­sure to the IED threat,” Ja­cob­sen writes, “they re­jected the idea. The re­al­ity of depend­ing on in­sect per­for­mance in a warz one was im­plau­si­ble.” The de­ci­sion took the sting out of the pro­ject; the bees never de­ployed.

To pro­duce the book, Ja­cob­sen con­ducted dozen­sof in­ter­views with for­mer DARPA mem­bers. She clearly has plenty of ma­te­rial to work with, but some­times it is dif­fi­cult to know how she feels about it all — she seems con­flicted, and that un­easi­ness is ap­par­ent to the reader. An or­ga­ni­za­tion that works un­der the credo “any­thing imag­ined can be tried” clearly makes Ja­cob­sen un­com­fort­able, and she sug­gests time and again that while the agency’s de­scent to the dark side isn’t in­evitable, it is some­thing to keep watch over. DARPA, Ja­cob­sen writes, was re­spon­si­ble not only for early re­search into brain­wash­ing and Agent Or­ange, but also the hearts and minds cam­paign in Viet­nam and post-9/11 data-min­ing pro­grams that seemed, at a min­i­mum, to dance along the edge of our civil lib­er­ties.

Even in the area of brain science, there is rea­son to be both hope­ful and wor­ried. DARPA re­searchers have “de­vel­oped and are test­ing im­plantable wire­less ‘neu­ro­pros­thet­ics’ as a pos­si­ble means of over­com­ing am­ne­sia,” Ja­cob­sen writes. The sci­en­tists are look­ing for treat­ments for post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der by adapt­ing tran­scra­nial di­rect-cur­rent stim­u­la­tion. In some cases, they are sur­gi­cally im­plant­ing mul­ti­ple elec­trodes in var­i­ous parts of the brain. The elec­trodes trans­mit in­for­ma­tion to a con­trol cen­ter, which can send elec­tri­cal im­pulses to the brain to re­lieve such things as anx­i­ety or fear. It’s the elec­troshock ther­apy of old— but by re­mote con­trol.

Another sci­en­tist is try­ing to build what is es­sen­tially an ar­ti­fi­cial brain. The rubric de­scrib­ing this re­search is syn­thetic cog­ni­tion. “Roboti­cists de­fine ar­ti­fi­cial brains as man­made ma­chines de­signed to be as in­tel­li­gent, self-aware, and cre­ative as hu­mans,” Ja­cob­sen writes. “No such ma­chine yet ex­ists, but DARPA sci­en­tists . . . be­lieve that, given rapid ad­vances in DARPA tech­nolo­gies, one day soon they will.”

For the more than 300,000 Amer­i­cans who the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs be­lieves re­turned from Iraq and Afghanistan with brain in­juries, DARPA’s search for new reme­dies sounds like a noble en­ter­prise. But it also gives pause, and this hap­pens of­ten when read­ing “The Pen­tagon’s Brain.” One can’t help feel­ing there is some­thing faintly creepy about it all, which may be ex­actly what Ja­cob­sen in­tended.


The At­las ro­bot was built by Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics for the DARPA Ro­bot­ics Chal­lenge, in which teams from around the world com­peted.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.