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Happy Birthday DARPA

April 8, 2008


Everyone who surfs the Internet or sends email owes a debt to the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (commonly known as DARPA). It was DARPA (named ARPA until 1972) that, at the beginning of the networked age, developed the network (named ARPANET) that later became the Internet. It was set up as a response to the Soviet nuclear threat. The Air Force, in particular, wanted to ensure that it could maintain communication with its nuclear force commanders, even in the aftermath a nuclear attack and asked the RAND Corporation to study the problem beginning in 1962. RAND researcher Paul Baran recommended the development networks using packet switching as the answer. ARPA took up that challenge and in 1968 awarded the ARPANET contract to BBN. The actual backbone network was constructed a year later, linking four nodes: University of California at Los Angeles, SRI (in Stanford), University of California at Santa Barbara, and University of Utah. Ray Tomlinson of BBN had created a program that permitted the exchange of emails. Progress continued apace. The following year development began on an ARPANET protocol (later to be called TCP/IP). The group that developed this protocol was headed by Vinton Cerf from Stanford and Bob Kahn from DARPA. The importance of this new protocol was that it allowed diverse computer networks to interconnect and communicate with each other. A year later, 1974, Cerf and Kahn started using the term Internet. Ethernet, TCP/IP, and the Internet were now all in place. Washington Post columnist Stephen Barr, reminds us that the venerable agency just turned 50 [“The Idea Factory That Spawned the Internet Turns 50,” 7 April 2008]. Barr describes DARPA this way:

“The best program managers are ‘freewheeling zealots’ with big ideas. The staff has been called ‘100 geniuses connected by a travel agent.’ And the boss describes his agency as a home for ‘radical innovation.'”

It has certainly been an engine for innovation, but not everyone is thrilled that the risk takers are working for the military.

“From its beginning, the Defense Department agency has looked worldwide for fundamental scientific and technology discoveries ready for conversion into a blockbuster asset for the military. ‘DARPA will take a chance on an idea with no data. We’ll put up the money to go get the data and see if the idea holds,’ said Anthony J. Tether, the agency director. ‘That is the highest-risk type of research you can have.’

One might be tempted to think of DARPA as the evil military group constantly searching to turn the world’s most beneficial scientific discoveries into weapons (kind of like the plot in Val Kilmer’s B movie Real Genius). Barr notes, however, that DARPA has achieved some significant scientific advances that have helped both the military and the public at large.

“Small and secretive, DARPA has compiled a number of impressive achievements in the past 50 years. It pulled together researchers who created the blueprint for the Internet. It sponsored the inventor of the computer mouse (the first was carved from wood and had one button). It developed the Saturn rocket engine program that allowed the nation to go to the moon. It came up with the technologies that have made possible stealth fighters and bombers, precision munitions and the pilot-less Predator planes used in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

It should come as no surprise that DARPA was a creation of the Cold War and, more specifically, of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United Sates.

“Like many government initiatives, DARPA was born out of a crisis. The Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik in 1957, beating the United States into space. At the direction of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, DARPA opened for business the next year, focused on helping guard the nation against technological surprises. The agency’s mission has been evolving ever since, and today DARPA also works to create its own technological surprises that permit the U.S. military to overwhelm adversaries.”

What’s so different about DARPA, besides its focus on radical innovation, is its almost total absence of the bureaucratic red tape that characterizes the rest of government.

“Unlike most federal agencies, DARPA operates with little red tape. It has only two management layers, encouraging the rapid flow of ideas and decisions. About 240 people work at DARPA, and 120 of them are program managers and office directors on appointments of four to six years. The agency does not own or operate labs, but sponsors research carried out by industry and universities. By rotating technical professionals every few years, DARPA has ‘a constant freshness of people and energy,’ Tether said. ‘Everything else we do stems from that.'”

DARPA sponsors a lot of interesting projects — like autonomous automobile races across the desert or a machine that can produce water “out of thin air” in almost any environment (see my post Water, Water Everywhere). Barr lists a few others.

“Some of DARPA’s current projects may hold that potential. Researchers are working on a two-way speech translation system that would permit soldiers to go anywhere in the world and understand the people around them. The idea, Tether said, is to create a miniature headset that would immediately translate a foreign language into English and feed it to an earpiece. In turn, a reply by an English speaker would be converted into the appropriate language and broadcast from small speakers on the headset. When the technology is perfected, ‘the world will become a safer place. People will be able to talk to one another and understand one another,’ Tether said. Another project looks for ways to restore severely injured soldiers. Researchers are trying to develop a prosthetic arm and hand that can be directly controlled by the brain and used as a natural limb, with dexterity and sensations. Prototypes are in development, Tether said, and hold promise that disabled soldiers can stay in the military ‘and contribute as before’ rather than be discharged. DARPA conducts research in almost every field — biology, microelectronics, satellites, unmanned cars and aircraft. ‘We are extraordinarily broad. If you can think of it, we’re doing it,’ Tether said. Of course, numerous projects are classified because they may have a useful military application or because DARPA does not want the world to know everything it is doing. The government always will need a place to test and finance big ideas, Tether said. ‘The 50 years of history proves it has been well worth it, and I have to believe that in the next 50 years DARPA will come out with technological advances that will stagger even my imagination.'”

DARPA has managed to create of culture of big ideas and risk taking. The fact that the world at large has benefited from its research is evidence enough that the 50-year investment has been worthwhile. I don’t know if DARPA will ever create a universal translator à la Star Trek, but I suspect I’ll be reading about a lot products that grow from research sponsored by DARPA over the next fifty years. Therefore, I join with Barr in wishing the agency a happy birthday.

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