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I Wanna Be Upgraded: How Humans Are Becoming Superheroes

Reality has taken a definite turn for the comic-booky. If you’re like me, when you saw the “real-life superhero” weirdness like Dark Guardian on G4 Underground or Shadow Hare on CNN, you laughed so hard you threw your back out, and immediately wanted to go out and maim these freaks with a white-hot tire iron and a broken thermometer. As more of these “people” begin to surface, though, there’s a nagging sensation that this is exactly how it started in “Watchmen,” and with advances in science, maybe we’re not that far away from omnipotent blue nudists.

In the future, we will all be super-powered. Well, not you. You’ll be dead. (I hope this isn’t news.) Your grandkids, however, may be living an in age when mankind is regularly scraping its knuckles against the post-human ceiling. Our reality is now very much like the early stages of the Marvel Universe on display in this week’s “The Marvels Project“: an era where the supersoldier has become a serious idea, and been given serious funding by the likes of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

It’s an extremely weird world, and it’s only getting weirder: this Christmas, every snot-nosed, lifewrecking kid in America is going to be begging his understandably negligent mother for a Star Wars Force Trainer; genome-mapper Craig Venter wants to program algae to produce oil; people have entirely taken for granted that we can CLONE THINGS.

If you don’t think reality is looking more and more like a comic book, you’re clearly not paying attention. Allow us to illuminate you.5. Becoming Aquaman: We Talk to the Fishes

Hey, remember when the Iraq War started, like, a decade ago? After one month, trained dolphins of the Navy Marine Mammal Program helped coalition forces disable over 100 sea mines and clear over 900 nautical miles of water. In addition, back in 2006, DARPA funded a project that successfully “steered” a shark through electrical stimulation. This type of cooperation with sea animals has a lot of applications, from combat to environmental study, so it turns out that Aquaman’s power is pretty cool, and the Charlie Brown-like asskicking he’s been getting since his inception was totally unwarranted. Why, with this kind of power, we can finally, FINALLY have Saturday Night Shark Fights, where the term “jumping the shark” will at last receive a positive connotation.


4. Becoming Ant-Man: HI-MEMS

As in “Hybrid Insect Mems.” As in surgically implanting micromechanical systems inside insects early in metamorphosis, and waiting for scores and scores of be-thoraxed little minions to pupate into an army of mindless assassins. And surveyors and tool-makers and all that crap too, but mainly, assassins. If everything goes according to plan, any old sergeant can play Ant-Man for a little while, guiding his unholy demon swarm of death with GPS locators, pheromone triggers, and optical cues. Why don’t YOU get used to this kind of control, then go home and try to deal with a wife who doesn’t listen? Only THEN can you cast your stones at Hank Pym, sir.

3. Whatever the Hell This Is

You know something is good when it promises to “emphasize radical concepts that may contain high technical risk…” And then says NOTHING ELSE. The synopsis for Advanced Sensing Technologies is thirty-one words, vague as hell, and if recited in a monotone voice whilst burning rubber, summons the demon Choronzon, Guardian of the Abyss. There are probably only three people on the planet who know what AST is, and they’ve all been shot in the face by Dick Cheney’s capuchin helper, “Snuggles.” Hope it was worth it, no-face!

2. Becoming Spider-Man: The Z-Man Program

The goal of the Z-Man Program is to create an army of Spider-Man(s). Technically, it’s about developing a climbing aid that makes it possible to scale vertical walls without a rope. Ultimately, Spider-Man(s). Lots of approaches are being considered, from mimicking spiders and geckos to manipulating van der Waals forces. It really doesn’t matter which road ends up being successful – it is a gleaming, golden path knifing through the dark woods of bitter discontent, leading all the way to the mystical palace of childhood wish fulfillment. Taste the magic!

1. Becoming Captain America: The “Metabolically Dominant Warrior”

Back in 2002, DARPA Defense Sciences Office director Michael Goldblatt outlined a long-term, three-billion dollar plan to create “soldiers having no physical limitations:” warfighters genetically enhanced to be stronger and faster, exoskeletons that would allow soldiers to stay awake for weeks, brain-machine interfaces that could make all communication instantaneous. A lot of projects that DARPA funds have the stink of the impossible about them – programmable matter and atoms engineered at the nanoscale – and the organization has frequently been referred to as the Pentagon’s mad science division. But as the barrier between real and imagined becomes more pliant, who’s to say what’s impossible? It’s quickly becoming a comic book world, and we are just beginning to live it.

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