Last Friday, the ACG National Capital membership was treated to a very special and extremely interesting monthly meeting. Addressing the membership was Dr. Phillip Alvelda, a Program Manager in the Biological Technologies Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
For those that are unfamiliar with DARPA, it’s the department within the Department of Defense (DoD) responsible for developing innovative and futuristic technologies. It’s also the agency behind one of the disruptive technologies that I mentioned above – the Internet. In fact, according to Dr. Alvelda, innovations and breakthroughs whose societal impacts fall short of the creation of the Internet, “get a B,” grade.
A self-proclaimed, “start-up guy,” Dr. Alvelda’s responsibilities within DARPA include the development of programs that take the latest neural engineering science and technology out of the laboratory and seed the creation of new mind-enabled industries.
Needless to say, Dr. Alvelda is not the usual ACG National Capital speaker. But his work could introduce a new world of exciting innovations, which could spark some exciting new markets and business opportunities for those companies in tune with developments and prepared to harness these technologies for exciting implementations and capabilities. And at the heart of Dr. Alvelda’s work are biology and the deciphering of the code that is behind all living things.
“Biology has solved all of these problems and more with a level of complexity that nothing that we have ever invented before has even begun to approach,’ Dr. Alvelda said. “Replication, evolution, seasonal changes, transduction of light, and healing – these are things that we have not been able to recreate in technology until recently.”
By unlocking the inner working of DNA – the code that creates all of the life on Earth – biologists are taking steps towards being able to build things with them, and are opening up new doors for creating innovative medical breakthroughs and advancing neural understanding.
According to Dr. Alvelda, “…over the course of the last 20 years, the field of synthetic biology has been able to decode what those sequences of nucleic acids mean. What is the code? What does it produce? How is it functionalized? We can now use it – not to just understand the science – but we can use it to engineer and build and design things, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Utilizing these newly discovered gene sequences, scientists are capable of engineering a wide range of biological tools that can help overcome some of our largest challenges. From the creation of bio fuels to the engineering of artificial blood, to the ability to ability to confer instant immunity to new diseases, these technologies are really only limited by the imaginations of researchers and scientists.
And there’s one capability that these new gene therapies can enable that is of particular interest to Dr. Alvelda – they can be used to make brain activity visible to researchers looking to better understand neural pathways, activities and signals.
Utilizing gene sequences that make living things glow, researchers have been able to make it so that nerves firing in the brain emit light. According to Dr. Alvelda, “We realized that we can use this glowing protein gene therapy to illuminate what’s happening in the brain.”
With this increased understanding of which areas of the brain are responsible for which activities and responses, DARPA is now working on a new generation of prosthetics and other devices that can interact directly with the brain to both receive instructions and relay information. The end result can be prosthetics that both respond to human thought like real limbs, or devices that can effectively provide hearing and eyesight to those that have lost it.
According to Dr. Alvelda, “…what I’ve fundamentally determined is that it should be possible to make a little device that you can inset inside the surface of the skull, over your area of interest, and whatever part of the brain you want to interact with – your memory, your speech, your vision, your motor cortex – we should be able to build a tiny little implant, minimally invasive that can give you direct connectivity to the brain.”
But the applications don’t end with helping the infirm. Dr. Alvelda predicts a society in the not-so-distant future where advanced implants that interact directly with the brain become commonplace for consumers.
According to Dr. Alvelda, “What does it mean for our society…when each of us has a brain interface? And we will. It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of when. And it’s not a matter of fifty years, it’s probably a matter of ten or fifteen years. So, within your children’s lifetime, there will be a growing population of people with advanced brain implants. The first ones will be for people with deficits – the blind, the deaf, the mute. But they will – with each generation – become smaller, higher precision, lower power, less invasive, more integrated – and more and more people will get them.”
And the benefits and uses of those implants can vary widely – from improving memory to enabling individuals to send and receive things such as smells, ideas and emotions.
As Dr. Alvelda discussed in the quote above, these technologies and capabilities aren’t that far off. And the implications for both individuals and businesses are immense. As with all new disruptive technologies, there will massive opportunity for enterprises that are ahead of the curve to create new products, services, solutions and innovations that utilize the research and technologies that are being developed at DARPA today.
Prior to wrapping up his presentation, Dr. Alvelda challenged the ACG membership in attendance when he said, “Do you want to be the person that is happy with the ways things are, or do you want to be the person that drives things towards revolution?” Smart enterprises will stay ahead of technology trends such as these, and invest to ensure that they’re prepared to take advantage of these new technologies and the markets they create. They won’t be complacent, and they’ll push towards revolution.