Thursday, March 29, 2007

Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys?

Appropos of nothing in particular other than a science-fiction fan's wonderment, Noah Shachtman has an interesting article in Wired Magazine about cutting edge research into ways to push beyond the bounds of human capacity. Not surprisingly, the current research is being pursued for military purposes. Don't it always seem to at least start out that way?

As an aside, and speaking of Shachtman, he recently launched a blog under Wired's masthead called the Danger Room (Prof X representin'). Danger Room features a solid cast of contributors including Jeffrey Lewis (ArmsControlWonk), Kris Alexander (Alexander the Average) and AmFoot's very own Armchair Generalist - whose fast becoming the hardest working blogger in the 'sphere. Worth a look.

But I digress. Here's a sample of what Schactman has uncovered, but do go read the rest:

The lab is climate-controlled to 104 degrees Fahrenheit and 66 percent humidity. Sitting inside the cramped room, even for a few minutes, is an unpleasantly moist experience. I’ve spent the last 40 minutes on a treadmill angled at a 9 percent grade. My face is chili-red, my shirt soaked with sweat. My breath is coming in short, unsatisfactory gasps. The sushi and sake I had last night are in full revolt. The tiny speakers on the shelf blasting “Living on a Prayer” are definitely not helping.

Then Dennis Grahn, a lumpy Stanford University biologist and former minor-league hockey player, walks into the room. He nods in my direction and smiles at a technician. “Looks like he’s ready,” Grahn says.

Grahn takes my hand and slips it into a clear, coffeepot-looking contraption he calls the Glove. Inside is a hemisphere of metal, cool to the touch. He tightens a seal around my wrist; a vacuum begins pulling blood to the surface of my hand, and the cold metal chills my blood before it travels through my veins back to my core. After five minutes, I feel rejuvenated. Never mind the hangover. Never mind Bon Jovi. I keep going for another half hour.

The test isn’t about my endurance; it’s about the future of the American armed forces. Grahn and his colleagues developed the Glove for the military — specifically, for the Pentagon’s way-out science division, Darpa: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. For nearly 50 years, Darpa has engineered technological breakthroughs from the Internet to stealth jets. But in the early 1990s, as military strategists started worrying about how to defend against germ weapons, the agency began to get interested in biology. “The future was a scary place, the more we looked at it,” says Michael Goldblatt, former head of Darpa’s Defense Sciences Office. “We wanted to learn the capabilities of nature before others taught them to us.”

By 2001, military strategists had determined that the best way to deal with emerging transnational threats was with small groups of fast-moving soldiers, not hulking pieces of military hardware. But small groups rarely travel with medics — they have to be hardy enough to survive on their own. So what goes on in Grahn’s dank little lab at Stanford is part of a much larger push to radically improve the performance, mental capacity, and resilience of American troops — to let them run harder and longer, operate without sleep, overcome deadly injury, and tap the potential of their unconscious minds.

I gotta get me one of those gloves (incidentally, it works just as well in cold environments as Schactman later demonstrates, personally). Despite the fantastic qualities of many of these innovations (check out the use of EEG to anticipate and act on thoughts in a subject before he/she actually becomes cognizant of them!), I wonder about the status of the more mundane scientific breakthroughs that have yet to come to pass.

Take for example, if I may indulge in a moment of unapologetic vanity, the elusive cure for baldness. What the hell is taking so long? Now as a youngster - in the heady days of Atari and those clunky PET computers when we imagined that nothing was far beyond the reach of technology's rapid advance - I figured that such a cure was just around the corner. No worries, thought I. By the time baldness would even become an issue in my life, medicine would have it all sorted out. It was with a kind of condescending sympathy that I looked on my poor father's barren dome.

Now in my early thirties, that cocksure swagger has been replaced by nightmares of comb-overs and razor-shaved consolation prizes. Truth be told, my deepest fear is not just that I might soon succumb to the relentless pull of baldness. It's that that my generation will be the Last of The Propecians. That a cure is actually imminent, but it just won't come in time to rescue me.

I imagine the cold comfort offered by the ability at age 80 to reinvigorate my then wispy tufts of gray. All the while forced to watch the arrogant youngsters parade around in their bulletproof bouffons. Those unappreciative sorts who would never in their lives know hair-loss anxiety.

Sadly, ensuring that our soldiers have the ability to maintain a robust head of hair is not likely on top of the "to do" list over at DARPA. Priorities I guess. But the clock is running out.

Faster! Please!

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