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DARPA creating a race of robo-grunts

Strong, tireless, and lacking all human appetites

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I'm taking little white pills
And my eyes are open wide
I just passed a Jimmy and a White...
I've been passin' every thing in sight.
Six days on the road, and I'm gonna make it home tonight.

    --Dave Dudley

The Defense Sciences Office of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking for a few good proposals to exploit soldiers in ways Rommel and Tojo could only have dreamed of.

Imagine divisions of grunts able to go without food and sleep for days on end while performing at peak level. That's the perverse dream of the Defense Sciences Office's new Metabolic Dominance Program.

"The vision for the Metabolic Dominance Program is to develop novel strategies that exploit and control the mechanisms of energy production, metabolism, and utilization during short periods of deployment requiring unprecedented levels of physical demand. The ultimate goal is to enable superior physical and physiological performance by controlling energy metabolism on demand," DARPA explains.

Much of this will be a matter of uncapping the natural safety mechanisms against excessive strain that humans have evolved with - overclocking the grunt, so to speak. But the DoD doesn't seem much concerned by the potential ill effects; nowhere in the call for proposals is there a request for a long-term health impact study. The long-term effects will apparently be discovered the old-fashioned way.

Numerous areas of pseudo-science will be explored to achieve "continuous peak physical performance and cognitive function for 3 to 5 days, 24 hours per day, without the need for calories."

This will be accomplished without the traditional stimulants and the nervous edge they create. Firing up soldiers with amphetamines has had its drawbacks, illustrated most recently in Afghanistan, where two speed-addled US pilots panicked and attacked a group of Canadians on a training exercise, killing four and wounding eight.

Rather, DARPA is interested in forcing soldiers' bodies to metabolize their own fat reserves, eliminating the need for food. It would like to overclock muscle mitochondria, increasing output beyond levels that the skeleton can withstand. It would like to suppress the painful signs of fatigue, so that soldiers can be pushed beyond the limits of human endurance without realizing it, at least until something breaks.

DARPA has identified a number of problems that will need solving. One is body temperature management; super-metabolism will cause overheating, which can easily kill. Another is supplying nutrients to people who have stopped eating, though perhaps little white pills or transdermal patches can be used.

And finally, there has to be a way of reversing the enhancements at will, "without deleterious or irreversible effects," DARPA says. "Adverse effects are to be identified with mechanisms for intervention." These mechanisms should "reduce post-exertion recovery time and minimize negative consequences of enhanced performance."

Or at least the appearance of such.

Soldiers must return to normal metabolism when the 'treatments' stop. We wouldn't take 'without ... permanent effects' to mean 'without permanent injury,' because that's something no military organization ever apologizes for. We take it to mean that when the burnt-out, desiccated husks of men who have been driven beyond natural limits are shipped home, their families will see them eating and sleeping normally, and therefore wonder less about why they can barely walk.

DARPA will be accepting proposals from the 'scientific community' until mid-March. ®

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