Tag Archive: DARPA


The Pentagon hasn’t made much progress in solving the PTSD crisis plaguing this generation of soldiers. Now it’s adding new staff members to the therapy teams tasked with spotting the signs of emotional pain and providing therapy to the beleaguered. Only this isn’t a typical hiring boost. The new therapists, Danger Room has learned, will be computer-generated “virtual humans,” used to offer diagnostics, and programmed to appear empathetic.

It’s the latest in a long series of efforts to assuage soaring rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD that afflict today’s troops. Military brass have become increasingly willing to try just about anything, from yoga and reiki to memory-adjustment pills, that holds an iota of promise. They’ve even funded computerized therapy before: In 2010, for example, the military launched an effort to create an online health portal that’d include video chats with therapists. But this project, funded by Darpa, the Pentagon’s far-out research arm, is way more ambitious. Darpa’s research teams are hoping to combine 3-D rendered simulated therapists — think Sims characters mixed with ELIZA — with sensitive analysis software that can actually detect psychological symptoms “by analyzing facial expressions, body gestures and speech,” Dr. Albert Rizzo, who is leading the project alongside Dr. Louis-Philippe Morency, tells Danger Room. The therapists won’t treat patients, but they will help flesh-and-blood counselors by offering a general diagnosis of what ails soldiers, and how serious the problem is.

For now, the system, called SIM Sensei, is being designed for use at military medical clinics. A soldier could walk into the clinic, enter a private kiosk, and log on to a computer where his or her personal simulated therapist — yes, you can pick from an array of different animated docs — would be waiting. Using Kinect-like hardware for motion sensing, a microphone and a webcam, the computer’s software would take note of how a patient moved and how they spoke. The video above offers a demonstration of what a SIM Sensei would look like, and how they’d interact with a patient. In fact, the video is a demonstration of another Pentagon-funded program, called SIM Coach, upon which SIM Sensei will be based. SIM Coach is meant to be used by soldiers inside their own homes, and doesn’t incorporate analysis tech the way SIM Sensei will.

SIM Sensei won’t replace human clinicians. Instead, it’ll supplement them, and help military clinics prioritize which patients need care most acutely, and which can wait to see a flesh-and-blood doctor. If a soldier talking to the SIM exhibits minor symptoms, the Sensei might help him or her schedule an appointment to see a human therapist in two weeks’ time. But if the Sensei detects “red flags” in an individual’s behavior — vocal patterns that signal depression, for example — the SIM could schedule that patient to see a doctor immediately. “Let’s say you have a more serious case, where it becomes evident to the Sensei that a patient is exhibiting major depression or might be a suicide risk,” Dr. Rizzo tells Danger Room. “The computer could immediately call for a human doctor to come take over.”

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Imagine robots that can do everything you can do — and probably do it even better.

Brace yourself, because that era might be here sooner than you think: The Pentagon agency behind some of the most important robotics research will soon challenge experts worldwide to come up with humanoid robots that can navigate their environment and handle tools with near-Homo sapiens skill.

Within the next few weeks, Darpa, the Pentagon’s far-out research arm, is expected to launch its contest, which will likely ask roboteers to build a bipedal robot that can do things like drive cars, open doors, traverse rough terrain and show off its fine motor skills, perhaps by repairing busted pipes.

Word of Darpa’s plans was initially leaked to Hizook.com, a website that covers robotics. The site later confirmed details of the agency’s endeavor with Kent Massey, the director of advanced programs at HDT Robotics. Massey attended a recent speech by Darpa program director Dr. Gill Pratt, who outlined the new challenge. Danger Room confirmed Massey’s account with other attendees.

“The goal of this Grand Challenge is to create a humanoid robot that can operate in an environment built for people and use tools made for people,” Massey told Hizook.com in an e-mail. “The specific challenge is built around an industrial disaster response.”

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SeeMe Satellites The SeeMe program would give warfighters the ability to receive timely imagery of their specific overseas location directly from a small satellite, all at the press of a button.

Warfighters have plenty of eyes in the sky, with a massive drone fleet and a satellite network that can spot their locations on the ground. But satellites are only helpful when they’re overhead, and battlefield situations can’t wait for orbital physics. To solve this problem, DARPA wants a swarm of cheap satellites nestled between the big ones up above and the aerial drones down below. The satellite swarm would be positioned in tactical orbits and able to send a space-based image back to any individual who wants a picture.

The SeeMe program (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements) would use a smartphone or tablet to send a command, according to DARPA. A soldier or marine would press “see me” on a handheld device, and a satellite above would find the person and send back an image within an hour and a half. DARPA is seeking proposals for these satellites from the mobile phone, optics and racecar industries, which could have some ideas about low-cost manufacturing, imaging and propulsion.

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There’s a growing threat to the U.S. military, according to the Pentagon’s premier research wing. No, it’s not Iran’s nukes or China’s missiles. It’s the iPads, Android phones and other gadgets we all carry around with us every day.

“Commercial consumer electronics has created vulnerabilities by enabling sensors, computing, imaging, and communications capabilities that as recently as 15 years ago, were the exclusive domain of military systems,” Darpa deputy director Kaigham “Ken” Gabriel tells the House Armed Services Committee’spanel on emerging threats. “These capabilities now are in the hands of hundreds of millions of people around the world and in use every day.”

“This is not an abstract vulnerability. We have not enjoyed spectrum dominance since about 1997,” he adds.

The warning is a bit ironic, coming from the head of an agency that was founded in response to a surprise Soviet space launch, and is today best known for its shape-shifting robots, its mind-controlled prosthetics, and its missiles that fly at 20 times the speed of sound.

But Gabriel, in his written testimony, says the consumer tech threat is very real — especially to the Pentagon’s once unparalleled ability to wage electronic warfare. Today’s communications deviceshopscotch between frequencies in a way that makes them tough to spoof or jam. Tomorrow’s electronics — which will likely rely on lasers to pass along data and phone conversations — will be even tougher to stop.

“In both waveform complexity and carrier frequency, adversaries have moved to operating regimes currently beyond the capabilities of our systems,” Gabriel says.

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Plenty of geeks are already obsessed with self-tracking, from monitoring sleep rhythms to graphing caffeine intake versus productivity. Now, the Department of Defense’s far-out research agency is after the ultimate kind of Quantified Self: Soldiers with implanted body sensors that keep intimate tabs on their health, around the clock.

In a new call for research, Darpa is asking for proposals to devise prototype implantable biosensors. Once inserted under a soldier’s skin, Darpa wants the sensors to provide real-time, accurate measurements of “DoD-relevant biomarkers” including stress hormones, like cortisol, and compounds that signal inflammation, like histamine.

Implantable sensors are only the latest of several Pentagon-backed ventures to track a soldier’s health. Darpa’s already looked into tracking “nutritional biomarkers” to evaluate troops’ diets. And as part of the agency’s “Peak Soldier Performance” program, Darpa studied how one’s genes impact physical ability, and tried to manipulate cellular mitochondria to boost the body’s energy levels.

Sensors alone won’t make troops stronger, smarter or more resilient. But they’d probably offer the kind of information that could. For one thing, the sensors would provide military docs an array of reliable info about the health of every single soldier. Plus, they’d tell leaders how a soldier’s body stood up to grueling physical training or a tough deployment. Tracking changes in the body’s endocrine system, for example, might tell a physician that a soldier is increasingly sleep deprived. Or observing chronically increased inflammation levels might tell a team leader that trainee number five isn’t cut out for the Navy SEALs.

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Soldiers practically inhabiting the mechanical bodies of androids, who will take the humans’ place on the battlefield. Or sophisticated tech that spots a powerful laser ray, then stops it from obliterating its target.

If you’ve got Danger Room’s taste in movies, you’ve probably seen both ideas on the big screen. Now Darpa, the Pentagon’s far-out research arm, wants to bring ‘em into the real world.

In the agency’s $2.8 billion budget for 2013, unveiled on Monday, they’ve allotted $7 million for a project titled “Avatar.” The project’s ultimate goal, not surprisingly, sounds a lot like the plot of the same-named (but much more expensive) flick.

According the agency, “the Avatar program will develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate.”

These robots should be smart and agile enough to do the dirty work of war, Darpa notes. That includes the “room clearing, sentry control [and] combat casualty recovery.” And all at the bidding of their human partner.

Freaky? Um, yes. But the initiative does strike as the next logical step in Darpa’s robotics research. For one thing, the agency’s already been investigating increasingly autonomous, lifelike robots, including Petman (a headless humanoid), designed to mimic a soldier’s physiology, and AlphaDog (a gigantic, lumbering, four-legged beast), meant to lug gear during combat.

And just last week, when Darpa released a new video of AlphaDog cavorting through the forest, the agency noted that they wanted the ‘bot to “interact with [soldiers] in a natural way, similar to the way a trained animal and its handler interact.” AlphaDog is even being designed to follow a human commander using visual sensors, and respond to vocal commands.

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You can run, you can hide, but the masterminds in the military’s high-tech research arm have their eyes on a gadget that will allow them to hear your racing heart even as you try to get lost in a crowd.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency already has the technology to hear your heart as you crouch and cower in a dark corner across the room. Now the agency aims to increase its ability to do this at even greater distances, through walls — and even hear and distinguish between multiple hearts at once.

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