How Big is the Navy SEAL Innovation Multiplier?

Now that we've had time to reflect on the daring attack on Osama Bin Laden's Pakistani compound by Navy SEAL Team 6, it's been fascinating to hear about all the state-of-the-art military technologies that were deployed as part of the raid. There were tricked-out Black Hawk helicopters, unmanned robo-copters, stealth drones and satellite-linked camera feeds relaying live-action reports to military command posts in the U.S. And don't forget the bulletproof, armor-plated dogs. Obviously, an awful lot of military expenditure went into equipping these brave Navy SEALS with the best, most innovative equipment on the planet -- the kind of stuff that excites the average person on the street as much as a WIRED magazine or Popular Science reader. So just how big is the Navy SEAL innnovation multiplier?


Let's unpack the concept of the multiplier for a second. A multiplier is just a way of saying that every dollar of expenditure leads to some additional amount of incremental growth, typically measured in terms of GDP or some other conventional economic variable. The logic behind the multiplier is what gave us the great taxpayer rebate of 2009: the US government gives every taxpayer $250, fully expecting that some percentage of that amount gets spent at a local business, which in turn, benefits from that incremental spending and decides to hire additional workers, who in turn now have more money to spend, so they spend money at a local business... Well, you get the idea.

WiredForWar So, an innovation multiplier is just a way to measure the amount of incremental innovation that occurs as a result of every dollar of U.S. Defense Department spending on projects like the Navy Seal attack on Bin Laden. The Navy SEAL Team 6 multiplier may be bigger than you think, especially if it leads to a robotics revolution, as suggested by the Wall Street Journal and experts like P.W. Singer, who wrote the New York Times bestseller Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. That's big, if the Defense Department can jump-start the U.S. robotics industry, bring robotics into the realm of everyday life, and transform robotics into an innovation driver alongside the Internet. Every dollar of Defense spending gets parlayed into something much bigger.

But robotics is just the start.There are also opportunities to create advanced surveillance technologies, to develop new high-performance clothing materials and to create advanced hyperspectral sensors. Each of these technologies, originating in the defense sector, has the potential to migrate to the consumer sector.

K9-storm The innovation multiplier concept is important in that it gets us thinking about platforms rather than products. It's like the NASA manned space exploration missions - so many people focus on the real-world products that resulted from years of space exploration (yum, Tang orange juice!) rather than the technological platforms that paved the way for radically new types of innovation. Years from now, when the robotics revolution comes to pass, we may be able to thank Cairo the bulletproof dog for more than just giving every American Fido the chance to walk around the block in a nice $30,000 piece of body armor.

[image: US Navy SEALS Fast Rope via Wikimedia Commons]

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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