DARPA: Inventing America’s Secrets

Sharon Weinberger discusses the US agency DARPA with Council President Terry McCarthy at a LAWAC breakfast.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA for short – is an innocuous name for a US government agency that has produced the precursor to the Internet, stealth aircraft, drones and the first self-driving cars. It has a three billion dollar budget (at least to public knowledge), 140 employees and is, according to Sharon Weinberger, “the most successful military research agency ever.” But some of the most fascinating stories that Weinberger told a LAWAC Global Café Breakfast meeting were of the ideas that didn’t pan out – like stringing a wire between two helicopters in the air and flying low over the Vietnamese jungle in an attempt to find metallic resonance from Viet Cong weaponry concealed below the treetops. Or suspending an artificial moon over the Mekong Delta that would reflect enough light for US snipers to shoot by night. Or building one continuous highway right across the US on which trucks with nuclear missiles would be in constant motion so they couldn’t be targeted for destruction.

DARPA was initially founded in 1958 in response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite the previous year. The space portfolio was taken away from DARPA (originally called ARPA) in 1959 after NASA was set up, but its mission remained to develop emerging technologies for use by the military. It invested heavily in the Vietnam War, including promoting the use of Agent Orange, but ultimately found that high tech ideas didn’t have much effect on jungle guerilla warfare.

Meanwhile in the early 1960’s one DARPA researcher, JCR Licklider, who had been working with the big mainframe computers that occupied entire rooms at the time, began envisaging something much smaller. “He looked into the future and saw personal computers,” said Weinberger. He wrote a paper in 1960 on “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, and in 1963 floated a proposal to set up a national network of computers that could link scientists together and potentially provide a communications system that could track and survive a Soviet nuclear strike. The first “Arpanet” transmission, from a computer in UCLA to another in Stanford, happened in 1969 – the message was “Lo” – the first two letters of “Login”, after which point the network crashed.

DARPA was very active during the Cold War, working on missile technology, stealth aircraft technology to avoid Soviet air defense radars and even launching a project to work out why the Soviets were bombarding the US Embassy in Moscow with microwaves. The initial suspicion of the so-called “Moscow Viral Study” was that Soviet scientists were attempting to influence the brainwaves of US diplomats. DARPA tested microwaves on monkeys and even speculated about how the US could weaponize microwaves. Ultimately they worked out the microwaves had no influence on humans, and were just being used to activate listening bugs in the walls of the US Embassy.

After the Cold War ended, DARPA struggled to find a new mission. One idea, which was actively pursued after 9/11, was dubbed “Total Information Awareness”, which aimed at capturing personal information and communications from everyone possible to find warning signals for potential terror attacks. After the idea was attacked by William Safire in The New York Times and then by others in the media and the general public, Congress cancelled the project. Except they didn’t really cancel it. “They moved it over to the NSA,” said Weinberger, where it could be carried out in secret. It wasn’t until the Edward Snowden leaks that the US public gained an inkling of what information was being gathered by the intelligence agency.

DARPA’s experts had difficulty working out how to use technology to counter terrorists. They knew how to invent high-tech gadgets – one particular invention that was very useful was the technology behind “Pack Bots”, the small mobile robots that the military used to defuse roadside bombs without risking human life. But, said Weinberger, “attempts to model insurgents’ behavior was never very successful, neither in Vietnam nor in Afghanistan.” A project to use big data to predict Taliban attacks in Afghanistan never took off – it turned out that Taliban fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan did not leave behind detailed digital footprints from cell phones or ATM withdrawals.

One project that DARPA succeeded dramatically in was the “Grand Challenge,” which they launched in 2003. The challenge was to design a robotic vehicle that could drive with no human on board across 150 miles of desert from California to Nevada. The first year, the best entrant made it 7 miles, but the second year a number of these proto-autonomous vehicles covered the entire course. Now every major car company and tech titans like Google are racing to produce commercially viable autonomous cars.

“There are many things that DARPA did that they don’t get credit for,” said Weinberger. For example, they developed the voice-recognition software that ultimately powered SIRI – the military declined DARPA’s initial offer, “so they turned around and sold it to Apple!”

As for their current projects, Weinberger said some of the most exciting involve neuroscience and neuroprosthetics – the linking of the brain to prosthetics that can help amputees gain real conscious control over artificial limbs. And then there are the classified programs we don’t know about…