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Movers And Shakers

Mitchell Zakin

Former DARPA manager hopes to use chemistry to fuse mind and matter

by Marc S. Reisch
April 26, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 17

Credit: Aptima
Credit: Aptima

Mitchell Zakin is fascinated by the intersection of what at first seem like very different fields. The physical chemist recently completed a four-year stint at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he conceived and oversaw projects in what he calls infochemistry, a field of research that combines the power of chemistry and information technology.

Now senior vice president of innovation at Aptima, a privately held behavioral research firm based in Woburn, Mass., Zakin has his sights set on an even loftier target: the fusion of mind and matter. In joining Aptima, Zakin is bringing his chemistry and materials science expertise to a company focused on how people think, learn, and behave. His goal is to develop new materials that respond to human thought.

This is a tall order, as even Zakin acknowledges. “The fusion of mind and matter represents a broad continuum,” he says. It ranges “from harnessing the brain’s tremendous capability as a processor and controller, to developing devices with higher-order cognitive capabilities, to designing more natural interfaces between humans and machines.”

Zakin sees his new effort in mind-matter fusion as a logical extension of the infochemistry concept. He describes infochemistry as “a way to use chemistry as a programming language to make things happen. Instead of zeros and ones, a computer language based on chemical signals would provide instructions.”

At Aptima, he will apply the concept “to higher-order information, such as thought and memory. We foresee this as being one of the next great frontiers of science.” He and his new colleagues will explore applications in areas such as robotics, prosthetics, pharmaceuticals, and energy.

To achieve his vision, Zakin, a 50-year-old who has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Harvard University, plans on using lessons picked up during his time at DARPA, the office of the U.S. Department of Defense that bankrolls high-risk military research.

There he learned that tackling difficult and futuristic goals requires a community of skilled people. “At DARPA,” Zakin says, “program managers pose complex, nearly impossible challenges, and carefully construct an interdisciplinary research community in which the power of the group dynamic is harnessed to solve the challenge.”

George M. Whitesides, a Harvard chemistry professor who developed the infochemistry concept with Zakin, calls his colleague “very smart, very creative, and very energetic.” In an e-mail, Whitesides notes that Zakin’s government work “did what a good DARPA program should do: pick a really new and really interesting area and begin to build a community interested in working with, inventing, developing and applying” new types of materials.

Zakin says he aims to capture the essence of such a community in a new type of corporate enterprise. He and his colleagues at Aptima are recruiting people who have experience in both innovative research and the business of commercializing discoveries. Among those they aim to hire are people he worked with at DARPA.

Such a group, he says, could be “remarkably effective at solving complex problems, both military- and civilian-oriented, including the historically difficult problem of transitioning new technology to commercial markets.” Aptima’s mathematical models of social organization will be used to help optimize the process. The trick is getting the group dynamics right, Zakin says.

Initially, Zakin plans to focus on the fundamental science of mind-matter fusion and then move to practical applications. As he sees it, these could include prosthetics controlled by brain chemical signals. “Just the act of thinking could make materials, such as polymers embedded in an artificial limb, stiffen for greater lifting strength,” he predicts.

Another potential application is a drug delivery system embedded in the body. “You think about the need for a certain drug, and it is released into the body,” he says.

Even more futuristic is the possibility that mind-matter chemistry could lead to robots with human capabilities. “Imagine a robot that can reason about its environment like a human and work closely and effectively in teams with humans,” Zakin muses.

Zakin does have a track record of introducing new chemistry concepts. Although he will only discuss his DARPA work in broad outline because of its sensitive nature, his $100 million R&D portfolio there included chemical robots, a new class of flexible, mobile objects that can change shape and maneuver through small openings. With these so-called ChemBots, a DARPA briefing notes, “our warfighters can gain access to denied spaces and perform tasks safely, covertly, and efficiently.”

Another DARPA project involved programmable matter. Zakin and his team worked on a new form of matter based on mesoscale particles that can assemble into complex three-dimensional objects and then, on command, disassemble for later use. A third project, in chemical communications, explored solar- or battery-powered chemical systems that encode a message and convert it into an optical communication signal.

Before his stint at DARPA, Zakin worked at two small government-funded research firms, Spectral Sciences and Physical Sciences, where he applied chemistry to problems in defense and medicine. DARPA funded several of his projects.

Just as he did at DARPA, Zakin hopes at Aptima to break through conventional boundaries and develop chemistry in ways not done before. “It’s about capturing the ‘best of the brain’ and incorporating it into new materials and devices,” he says.



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