Army Working on Science's Outer Limits



It's like something out of "The Terminator." Self-aware virtual humans, regenerating body parts on "nano-scaffolding," mind controlled weapons - all the stuff of movie robots, comic heroes and otherworldly tomes.

But for some, this kind of higher-than-high tech is as real as life and death.

Dr. John Parmentola, Director of Research and Laboratory Management with the Army's science and technology office, told military bloggers Nov. 3 that the Army is "making science fiction into reality" by creating realistic holographic images, generating virtual humans and diving into quantum computing.

It may sound like a trailer for the next "Star Trek" installment, but Parmentola is deadly serious.

For the last several years, the Army has kept a close eye on research into areas of science that might have once been called "paranormal;" its practitioners drummed out of the academy as kooks and nut-jobs. But now the idea of implanting specific memories or erasing damaging ones, for example, isn't mere fantasy.

Dr. Joe Tsien, a neurobiologist at the Medical College of Georgia and co-director of the Brain Discovery Institute, has been able to erase certain memories from mice subjected to traumatic experiences in a laboratory environment, Parmentola said. From a practical standpoint, the Army could use this kind of technology to help Soldiers who've been psychologically scarred by staring death straight in the eye.

"You can imagine people who have horrifying memories, it would be great if we could eliminate them so this way they're not plagued by these memories uncontrollably," Parmentola said. "We have Soldiers that have this problem, like PTSD and traumatic brain injury, but there are many other examples that occur in the civilian world."

The Army plans to highlight Tsien's and other research into the ragged edges of science fiction at the 26th Army Science Conference in Orlando next month, where experts in neurorobotics, high-tech computer displays and quantum physics will explain how Soldiers could benefit from the types of radical science most have only seen on episodes of the "X-Files."

Take mind communication, for example. Experiments have shown that certain thoughts generate electrical impulses on the surface of the scalp, Parmentola said. Think commandos who can stealthily communicate without using their voice or Soldiers who control weapons with their thoughts from a distance over a wireless connection.

"You could wear a cap that is sensitive to these electrical impulses, pick up the pattern and amplify those small signals send it over a wire [or wirelessly] connect it to a device," Parmentola said. "So if you think of a thought 'turn on,' it will automatically turn on a computer or that device."

Or how about regenerative medicine? Parmentola said researchers aren't far away from being able to grow back body parts - both internal organs and limbs - that have been lost in combat or other accidents. The technique focuses on the use if molecular-sized particles that act as a kind of scaffolding to support the growth of body tissue - say, a finger - and dissolves as the biological material solidifies.

It's not that unlike what a salamander can do when it loses a limb.

"We're beginning to understand how this occurs and if we can, it holds the hope of, being able to regrow limbs on people," Parmentola said.

Then some of this space-aged research takes a turn into the Einsteinian world of quantum mechanics and particle physics - places most mere mortals who simply hump hills with ammo-laden rucks fear to tread.

"Quantum ghost imaging," for example, is as complicated as it sounds. Basically it's a phenomenon of physics that allows images to be rendered through the pairing of photons that do not reflect or bounce off an object, but off of other photons that did, thereby creating a sort of "ghost" image of it. This technology would enable the Army to generate images of personnel and equipment through clouds and smoke.

"It's like having a tracing tool that goes over the image and that's connected to another one on a piece of paper that exactly imitates what it is that you are tracing with the other pen," Parmentola said. "It takes advantage of a remarkable property of quantum mechanics to try and do this."

And if you do end up at the Army Science Conference next month, don't be startled by the three-dimensional holographic image of a soldier talking to you (not that the regenerated arm, mind-controlled computer or implanted memories won't freak you out enough) as you walk down the hall. It might just be the virtual human Army researchers are creating to make simulators and war games more realistic for training, Parmentola said.

They're working on creating "photorealistic looking and acting human beings" that can think on their own, have emotions and talk in local slang.

"I actually interact with virtual humans in terms of asking them questions and they're responding," Parmentola said.

To test out the computer generated humans' "humanity," Parmentola and his researchers want to unleash some of their cyber Soldiers into so-called "massively multi-player online games" such as "World of Warcraft" or "Eve Online" - games frequented by thousands of super-competitive human players in teams of virtual characters fighting battles that can last for days."We want to use the massively multi-player online game as an experimental laboratory to see if they're good enough to convince humans that they're actually human," he said.

-- Christian

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