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The fusion of computing with other fields has become a given in recent years. The combination of computers and communications forms the basis of the Internet. The application of computing power to drug development has spurred bioinformatics and other, related areas of genomics and proteomics. In DARPA’s view, the next challenge will be linking biology and computing to the science of the very small, through devices that can detect, influence, interpret and communicate what’s happening in living cells. And so DARPA this year kicked off an ambitious $35 million, four-year effort called Bio:Info:Micro. As Alexander told a group of researchers last fall, there’s a growing sense that merging biology with computing and microsystems “is something really new and revolutionary. In a lot of cases, we can’t quite put our finger on it, but all of us, as technologists, think that this is a very promising area.”

Two basic programs aim to fire early salvos in this predicted revolution. The first attempts to advance brain-machine interfaces-technologies that tap brain signals to control a variety of mechanical and electrical devices and can also send signals into the brain to stimulate neurons. This program has a solid starting point: already, DARPA-funded groups from Duke University, Caltech and elsewhere have built devices (tested only on animals so far) that can be surgically implanted in the brain to detect neural signals and send those impulses via wires to computers. The computers decode the signals, then transmit control instructions to devices like robotic arms (see “Brain-Machine Interface,” TR January/February 2001).

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