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Justin Sanchez, a neuroscientist with the United States' Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency won't confirm or deny if he's working on classified projects.
As director of the agency's biotech office, his research focuses on healing American soldiers who have suffered traumatic brain injuries in battle.
"I cannot confirm one way or another, because in doing so it would kind of reveal, but we are part of the Department of Defence," Sanchez said, following his presentation at the C2 Montreal conference this week. "And the Department of Defence does a whole number of (jobs) in a number of areas."
His answer is as mysterious as the research he conducts for the American military within the agency, known as DARPA. But he admits the scientific breakthroughs he has played a part in have applications far beyond medicine.
For instance, his research has recently shown humans can operate multiple unmanned aerial vehicles using only their minds. Research subjects — already suffering from illnesses such as epilepsy or Parkinson's — were implanted with brain sensors connected to a series of their neurons.
One of his subjects was able to fly a virtual aircraft using a flight simulator — all with their thoughts. That scientific finding is "absolutely" applicable to soldiers in combat, Sanchez said, "but the technology is not ready for prime time."
In one month, Sanchez will complete a six-year term at the research agency, whose origins stretch back to 1958. The United States was humiliated when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into space in 1957. American leaders vowed from that point on, they would be at the forefront of technological advances.
DARPA's roughly 200 employees manage research projects around the United States with the goal of ensuring Americans are never again surprised by technology. It is credited with inventing the internet, touch screen technology and GPS.
"We want to be ahead — always ahead," Sanchez said. "And part of being ahead is thinking in ways that other people don't."
In another project, Sanchez was able to "boost" a research subject's memory by sending electrical impulses to a specific part of their brain.
"We can do this today," he said. "We have shown proof of concept. We can stimulate the brain to improve memory performance."
Scientists also have data suggesting it's possible to transfer concepts into the brains of rats.
Sanchez said scientists have created a mental map about how to solve a maze — and implanted that "memory" into the brains of rodents. "There are early results that show there is a possibility of helping the neurons in the brain (of rats) receive that concept and facilitate their performance in one of those kinds of tasks."
Transferring memories into humans is still a long way off, he said.
But theoretically, it's not impossible, said Carolina Bessega, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Stradigi AI, a Montreal-based artificial intelligence company.
"I don't think it's completely unfeasible," she said in an interview at C2. "Theoretically yes, but it's still early research."
Stradigi AI conducts experimental research in machine learning, but it also works directly with companies by offering tailored services in artificial intelligence.
DARPA's secrecy has sparked countless conspiracy theories and tales of super-soldiers created in basement research labs across the United States, but both Bessega and Sanchez say that is pure fantasy.
"The scientific community," she said, "in general is pretty ethical." But Bessega admits it's impossible to know the kinds of research being done in less transparent countries, such as China.
China, too, had its "Sputnik moment," according to author Kai-Fu Lee, in his book, "AI Superpowers."
In the book, Lee recounts how the Chinese became transfixed when the country's star Go player was beaten handily by an artificial intelligence backed by Google in 2017. That moment helped spur an intense and ongoing push by the Chinese to become world leaders in artificial intelligence.
Sanchez said the United States still leads the world in technological advances, and he wouldn't say if the possibility of Chinese dominance concerns him. "If your mission is to create and prevent strategic surprise, you can't just focus on one person or one place," he said.
Biotech, for instance, is democratizing, meaning anyone can order a gene-editing kit online and use it at home. Governments no longer have a monopoly on technological advances, he said.
"We are living in a world where lots of people can use (technology) in a number of ways, and staying ahead of surprises that can come from that — that's what keeps me up at night."