The Pentagon’s advanced research arm is always dreaming up crazy, futuristic technologies that will shape the future of the military and society. DARPA was involved in early Internet development, and these days the agency works on everything from drone-slaying lasers to humanoid robots that could save your life.
Every year, DARPA gives out young faculty awards aimed at recruiting the "rising star" researchers in academia to devote their brains to the military’s technological needs. "The long-term goal of the program is to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers in the research community who will focus a significant portion of their future careers on DoD and National Security issues," this year's grant program announcement reads.
The agency doesn’t want these young geniuses to work on just anything, though. DARPA is seeking applications in 18 topic areas, offering some insight into the agency’s priorities and interests. Here are a couple of topics we found particularly intriguing:
The "Neurobiological Mechanisms of Social Media Processing" topic area seeks researchers to investigate how the use of social media tools affects people’s underlying thoughts and behaviors, such as their levels of empathy and social cognition.
The "Next Generation Neural Sensing for Brain-Machine Interfaces" topic area seeks improvements upon the outdated methods of implanting sensors into the brain to sense neural activity. Instead, they’d like new, non-invasive techniques for sensing the firing activities from "large numbers of single neurons simultaneously" in awake, behaving subjects. They state they are not looking for variations on the MRI method so common today.
In "Neural Inspired Computer Engineering," DARPA asks, why can’t computer systems work more like neural systems? The agency wants researchers to go beyond very simple silicon neural circuits that exist today and instead make "complex subsystems" consisting of large numbers of artificial neurons.
Even if successful, current approaches to creating a controlled fusion reactors would never work for military applications, which would require compact power plants. The DoD is looking for better tools to explore "Alternate Fusion Concepts"—configurations for fusion reactors that we hardly understand today, but could be promising in the future.
In the "New Materials and Devices for Monitoring and Modulating Local Physiology" section, the military is looking for innovative ways to interact with localized nerve and immune functions in the human body. These next-generation implants could, according to the document, "lead to transformative therapies and regenerative medicine that are highly specific and local...and methods for continuous physiological monitoring."
The rest of the proposal areas are also technical, but make for fascinating reading. DARPA's winners get a maximum of $250,000 a year for two years to fund their work. They also have potential, if their results are particularly noteworthy, to continue receiving funding for their work. Given the military's track record of producing technologies that trickle down into civilian lives, these topics are an exciting if somewhat concerning version of the future to come.