The Military Is Building Integrated Hybrid Living-Nonliving Robotic Organisms

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Geoffrey  Ingersoll|Oct. 16, 2012, 12:41 PM|1,624|7

terminator robot

In a request released Sept. 14 of this year, the  Office Of Naval Research sought to find proposals for “Synthetic  Biology Tools for Sensing and Bioprocessing” — essentially hybrid, organic  inorganic “sensing” robots.

But the language can be deceiving.Googling the first three words — synthetic biology tools — yields research in  the field of Biofuels. Even the “bioprocessing” part of the request equates to  sources of “efficient” fuels in austere conditions. As we’ve covered most  recently, the military is  under tremendous pressure to curb its  consumption of traditional fossil fuels.

Along with that, it’s under even more pressure to reduce casualties on the  battlefield — arguably the number one metric aside from monetary cost which  affects public resistance to foreign military expeditions.

Sure, they’re looking for inexpensive, efficient means to fuel war, but  they’re also looking for more efficient vehicles of  war. The language farther in the proposal though makes it clear  that the military is investing heavily into smart, cybernetic robots.

From the proposal:

This field is intended to serve two purposes: (1)  to allow the design and engineering of organisms that possess a specific,  reproducible function from a set of validated genetic parts, circuits and  chassis organisms, and, (2) to allow the systematic study of the structure and  function of genetic components in natural cellular/multi-cellular  systems.

Interpretation: We’re looking to connect organic matter, be it single celled  or multi-celled, to inorganic, possibly synthetic, circuits.

The organic matter would ‘sense’ certain stimuli. In one case specifically,  chemicals or molecules in the air that would indicate bomb-making materials — kind of like a dog’s nose connected to a computer.

But then the proposal takes a nasty turn for the weird and scary:

The Office of Naval Research has been funding  basic and applied research in Synthetic Biology for the past several years, with several applications or new naval  capabilities as the anticipated endpoint of this research program:

• Secure, renewable, scalable production of  energy, fuels or high-value naval materials – potentially in remote,  resource-limited locations • Stealthy, remotely-observable sentinel  species for threat monitoring and response to these threats (e.g., explosives)Autonomous, living-non-living  hybrid robotic systems that utilize cells as environmental sensing and information processing components • Utilizing synthetic biology to effect inorganic materials fabrication across  multiple length scales.

Interpretation: The above means a wide range of different possibilities.  Single celled ‘chassis’ could just be goop spread on a circuit that changes  states when exposed to certain ‘stimuli,’ and a circuit which would detect this  state change.

The objectives pretty much lay out the future for cybernetic organisms.

Objectives: • Develop rapid,  generalizable methods for designing/testing integrated sensing and actuation  components in a cellular/multi-cellular context. Approaches should consider the use of both chemical and non-chemical signals for detection and  response.

Possible lab exercises and hypotheses  to test hybrid organic non-organic systems

• Design and test feasibility of using  environmentally robust, genetically tractable, ‘chassis’ organisms, including novel microbes and multi-cellular  eukaryotes. • Develop microbial/multi-cellular catalysts that  can utilize electrical current directly as an electron  donor, and elucidate mechanisms of electron transport into these catalysts  and their metabolic pathways

From  single-celled goop, to straight up eyeballs (multicelled), that notice change in  light, change in smell, pressure or chemical reactions

• Enabling high information content communication  between cells, or between cells and non-living components, possibly  utilizing non-natural transduction modes and electronic coupling.  Detection and/or production of chemical or non-chemical signals such  as electrical current or fields, magnetic fields, mechanical forces, or  specific wavelengths of light should be considered.

Getting the goop or eyeballs to  communicate with nonliving tissue.

Finally, to bring it all full circle, we get the last  objective:

• Identify high-throughput  methods for discovery of unusual microbial metabolism/ pathways,  and screening for new genetic systems and/or engineered systems that can  lead to efficient production of fuels or other  organic/inorganic compounds in remote locations.

Basically a lot of words just to say: turning sea water into jet  fuel.

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Categories: Biotechnology ( New ), Transhuman

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