‘DARPA sows seeds of tech­no­log­i­cal sur­prise,’ Di­rec­tor Arati Prab­hakar


Many of the ad­vances that con­trib­ute to na­tional se­cu­rity re­sulted from early in­vest­ment in de­vel­op­ing new tech­nolo­gies, the Di­rec­tor of the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (DARPA) told Congress yes­ter­day.

Dr Arati Prab­hakar rep­re­sented the De­fense Depart­ment at a Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee hear­ing called to ad­dress con­cern that the na­tional in­vest­ment in re­search and de­vel­op­ment had shrunk since 2001, along with the ed­u­ca­tion pipe­line for young sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers.

The di­rec­tors of the Of­fice of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Pol­icy of the Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice of the Pres­i­dent, the Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health and the En­ergy Depart­ment also tes­ti­fied at the hear­ing.

“DARPA is part of De­fense Depart­ment sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy in­vest­ments,” Prab­hakar said. “We’re also part of this much larger na­tional ecosys­tem for R&D. But within those com­mu­ni­ties, we have one very spe­cific role: to make the piv­otal early in­vest­ments that change what’s pos­si­ble so we can take big steps for­ward in our na­tional se­cu­rity ca­pa­bil­i­ties.”

DARPA’s out­put is tech­nol­ogy, but the or­gan­i­sa­tion counts its mis­sion com­plete only when the tech­nolo­gies change out­comes, she added.

“Ev­ery time a stealth fighter evades an air de­fence sys­tem, ev­ery time a sol­dier on the ground is able to place him­self pre­cisely with GPS and get the data he needs, ev­ery time a radar on an air­craft car­rier al­lows us to see a threat to a car­rier strike group be­fore it sees us – that’s when we count our mis­sion com­plete,” Prab­hakar said.

In ev­ery case, DARPA made a piv­otal early in­vest­ment that showed the tech­nolo­gies were pos­si­ble, and what fol­lowed from that, Prab­hakar said, was equally im­por­tant.

“That was the in­vest­ment, of­ten by our part­ners in other parts of the De­fense Depart­ment and the mil­i­tary ser­vices – their sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy in­vest­ments, their de­vel­op­ment in­vest­ments or their ac­qui­si­tion pro­grams,” the di­rec­tor said. “Of course,” she added, “many in in­dus­try were in­volved deeply in those ef­forts, and ul­ti­mately to make those tech­nolo­gies into real ca­pa­bil­i­ties for our warfight­ers.”

Along the way, as DARPA fo­cused on its mis­sion of in­vest­ments for na­tional se­cu­rity, the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers planted some of the seeds that formed the tech­nol­ogy base that the U.S. commercial sec­tor has built layer on layer above the foun­da­tion, Prab­hakar said.

“Ev­ery time you pick up your cell phone and do some­thing as mun­dane and mirac­u­lous as check a so­cial net­work­ing site, you’re liv­ing on top of a set of tech­nolo­gies that trace back to that early work we did,” she added. “Pub­lic in­vest­ment laid that foun­da­tion. Bil­lions of dol­lars of pri­vate in­vest­ment and enor­mous en­trepreneur­ship is what built those in­dus­tries and ended up chang­ing how we live and work with these tech­nolo­gies.”

DARPA’s mis­sion of cre­at­ing break­through tech­nolo­gies for na­tional se­cu­rity is un­changed across more than five decades, she told the panel, but the world in which DARPA in­vests and pur­sues its mis­sion continues to change, and so do the things DARPA does that re­flect the na­tional se­cu­rity and tech­nol­ogy con­text in which the or­gan­i­sa­tion must op­er­ate to­day.

“In one arena, we see in­for­ma­tion at mas­sive scale af­fect­ing ev­ery as­pect of na­tional se­cu­rity,” the Di­rec­tor said. “So if you look in our port­fo­lio to­day, you will find game-chang­ing in­vest­ments in cy­ber and in big-data pro­grammes.” One ex­am­ple is work DARPA is do­ing to tackle the net­works that drive hu­man traf­fick­ing around the world, she added.

In an­other arena, Prab­hakar said, DARPA is look­ing at what’s hap­pen­ing with the cost and com­plex­ity of mil­i­tary sys­tems to­day.

“We recog­nise that [such sys­tems] are be­com­ing too costly and too in­flex­i­ble to be ef­fec­tive for the next gen­er­a­tion of threats we will face around the world,” Prab­hakar ex­plained, “so at DARPA we are in­vest­ing in pro­grammes that are fun­da­men­tally re­think­ing com­plex mil­i­tary sys­tems.”

DARPA is in­vest­ing in tech­nol­ogy its ex­perts be­lieve will lead to pow­er­ful new ap­proaches for radar, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, weapons and nav­i­ga­tion, she said.

“And in a range of re­search ar­eas, we can see the new seeds of tech­no­log­i­cal sur­prise,” Prab­hakar said. “One ex­am­ple is where bi­ol­ogy is in­ter­sect­ing with en­gi­neer­ing to­day, and in ar­eas like that, we are mak­ing in­vest­ments that will lead to new tech­nolo­gies like syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy and neu­rotech­nol­ogy.”

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