Army of Extreme Thinkers
Over the past half-century, an obscure Pentagon group, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been behind some of the world’s most revolutionary inventions -- the Internet, the global positioning system, stealth technology and the computer mouse, to name a few.
It’s an impressive record of success offset only by the fact that DARPA has also come up with some of the most boneheaded ideas ever to spring from the government.
Over the years, millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on a variety of projects, from telepathic spies and jungle-tromping robotic elephants to its most recent fiasco -- FutureMAP, an online futures market designed to predict assassinations and bombings by encouraging investor speculation in such crimes.
“Morally repugnant,” said Yale University economist Robert Shiller.
A “sick idea,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
“Unbelievably stupid,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).
It’s the type of criticism that DARPA is not only used to, but also lavishes on itself. “When we fail, we fail big,” said former DARPA Director Charles Herzfeld, summing up the agency research disasters in an official 1975 history of DARPA.
Such is life on the absolute bleeding edge of technology.
DARPA has always shunned conventionality, using “radicalism” as its watchword. It sniffs out tantalizing, often fantastic, ideas, then casts off bureaucratic shackles to leap forward.
As the military agency charged with developing innovative, far-reaching research, it has asked brilliant minds to court failure for a chance at greatness.
Michael Dertouzos, the late director of the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, credited DARPA-supported work with half of the major innovations in computing, including breakthroughs in microcircuits and data-management systems.
“The mantra was ‘high risk, high payoff,’ ” said Leonard Kleinrock, a UCLA computer scientist who was among an elite group of scientists recruited in the late 1960s to develop the nascent Internet. “A long leash, a lot of funding, a lot of support.”
But the price of success has been an equally impressive record of scientific kookiness. And now, in a darker era of amorphous terrorist threats, even some of its staunchest supporters are feeling a twinge of anxiety over such projects as the FutureMAP terrorism market.
“These things seem truly ominous,” said Gary Chapman, director of the 21st Century Project, a science policy research program at the University of Texas. “DARPA has become a scary sandbox for people whose objectives many Americans disagree with.”
DARPA was founded in February 1958, four months after the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite stunned the U.S. with the menacing prospect of being left behind scientifically.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency (renamed DARPA in 1972) was formed to make basic research a key element of national security. Roy W. Johnson, a handsome, blunt and hard-driving vice president at aerospace contractor General Electric Co., was picked as ARPA’s first director.
Johnson set up the agency to find experts in physics, information technology, materials science and other fields, then showered them with funds and freedom. ARPA initially focused on rocketry, space exploration, ballistic missile defense and nuclear test detection, then broadened its range.
Eschewing sluggish peer review of grant proposals, ARPA relied on enterprising program officers, many drawn from academia and industry, who selected projects based on hunches about the future.
“In the 1960s you could do really any damn thing you wanted, as long as it wasn’t against the law or immoral,” said Herzfeld, who directed ARPA from 1965 to 1967.
The agency was so open to ideas that in 1958 Johnson recommended paying an 11-year-old boy who wrote in with suggestions on how to build a space station. The letter mirrored military plans so closely that a security investigation was also ordered, according to the DARPA history.
One legendary manager was the late J.C.R. Licklider, an acoustical engineer and early mainframe computer expert. In 1962, then-ARPA Director Jack Ruina recruited “Lick” after reading his pioneering article, “Man Computer Symbiosis,” in an engineering journal -- a prescient vision of real-time, interactive computing.
Licklider disdained red tape, meetings and paperwork. He freed scientists to move as rapidly as possible toward his dream, the “Intergalactic Network.” His wild idea became the Internet after years of DARPA-funded research.
Early agency leaders would describe projects “in terms of what they would do for the country, not just for the military,” said Robert Taylor, a former program manager and a creator of the Internet.
Two DARPA technologies -- very large-scale integrated circuits, or VLSI, and graphic-design software -- were originally developed, in part, to manage daunting controls faced by military pilots who made split-second decisions in advanced jets.
But the work also helped create the computer workstation industry, including such companies as Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems.
The agency has “paid back its investment by orders of magnitude,” said Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park.
This year, the agency’s 160 program officers will dole out $2.7 billion on more than 200 projects in computing, space weapons, counter-terrorism, drone aircraft and biological defense, plus classified programs.
DARPA rotates program officers out after an average of four years to promote blue-sky thinking, said DARPA’s current director, Anthony J. Tether. “You can take inordinate risks that you typically wouldn’t take at a place where you think you’ll be for 30 years,” said Tether, an electrical engineer and former top executive with Ford Aerospace Corp. and Science Applications International Corp.
One project, budgeted at $12 million this year, is to build a “brain-machine interface” that would allow soldiers’ thoughts to be “turned into acts performed by a machine,” according to a DARPA summary. So far, they’ve gotten a monkey to move a robotic arm just by thinking.
DARPA is also sponsoring a Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas robot race next March to foster robotic research. The first land-based, driverless, fully autonomous vehicle to navigate the 300 miles of road and desert will earn a hefty prize of $1 million.
DARPA’s unlikely triumphs, however, have come at a high cost -- 85% to 90% of its projects fail to accomplish their planned goals, although they sometimes spin off unanticipated technologies, according to Tether.
The list of failures is long and strange.
During the 1970s DARPA studied telepathy and psychokinesis, the psychic manipulation of objects. “The Soviets ... had a woman who was fantastic,” Tether said. “She could feel colors.”
DARPA probed such methods to see, for example, if anyone could psychically peek around the globe for military advantage. “DARPA spent, for those days, considerable amounts of money because the impact would be tremendous if you could do it” -- and disastrous if the Soviets won the telepathy race, Tether said. Ultimately the agency concluded that parapsychology, if real, could not be used on demand, and killed the project.
Among the agency’s greatest fiascos was the decade-long program code-named “AGILE,” which spent $264 million on a wide range of social, anthropological and technical research during the Vietnam War.
One project aimed to create a “mechanical elephant” ostensibly capable of traversing on “servo mechanism ‘legs’ ” through a jungle too dense for jeeps.
From the outset there were doubts. AGILE’s chief scientist likened the project to “sending a million dollars to chase dimes around a rice paddy,” according to the DARPA history.
Nonetheless, the scientist justified it as consistent with Vietnam-era profligacy, according to DARPA’s history. “We knew it, but we did it,” he said. “ARPA just behaved like the nation did [on Vietnam] and was as effective as what the nation did.”
When then-DARPA Director Eberhardt Rechtin found out about the robotic pachyderm, he quashed the project, calling it a “damn fool” idea that would destroy DARPA’s credibility if Congress ever found out.
DARPA also threw a team of experts at the perplexing challenge of improving field rations for South Vietnamese soldiers.
“Vietnamese combat units were jumping out of aircraft into battle with live pigs and chickens under their arms because there was no supply system,” according to agency history. DARPA worked for months to find a suitable container for Vietnamese nuoc mam -- a popular fermented fish sauce “purported to eat through tin cans,” agency history noted. It does not say whether the effort succeeded.
DARPA insiders saw AGILE as a failure. But as Herzfeld later explained in the DARPA history: It was “an abysmal failure; a glorious failure.”
Today, DARPA is in the midst of yet another transformation, seeking new tools to fight terrorists, who are often indistinguishable from ordinary people. In this battle, the most powerful weapon is information -- data that must be scooped up by the terabyte on innocents as well as terrorists.
One of its leading programs, called Total Information Awareness, was directed by retired Adm. John M. Poindexter, the former national security advisor under President Reagan who was convicted in 1990 of lying to Congress about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. The convictions were reversed on appeal.
Widely considered a brilliant iconoclast, Poindexter fit the DARPA culture of visionaries who could find provocative solutions to huge problems.
The Total Information Awareness system seeks to locate terrorists by “connecting the dots” in electronic data, such as driver’s licenses, purchases of airline tickets and chemicals, intelligence reports and public records. The system looks for patterns of terrorist activity in the records of foreign citizens and ordinary Americans.
Privacy advocates howled when they heard about the project, prompting Congress to restrict its scope. The system was recently renamed “Terrorism Information Awareness.”
In an allied effort to track individuals, DARPA recently requested proposals for a $3.2-million project to catalog people by smell. The goal is to “determine whether genetically determined odortypes can be used to identify specific individuals” and develop methods “for detecting and identifying specific individuals by such odortypes.”
The search for more and better information also led DARPA to create the ill-fated FutureMAP, which Poindexter also headed.
It entailed a trading system, similar to those used to speculate on the future value of commodities such as pork bellies or oil, to bet on the likelihood of terrorist bombings or assassinations. The king of Jordan was noted as a theoretical target on DARPA’s Web site.
While some financial experts said the system could have predictive value, FutureMAP’s problems outweighed that prospect. Terrorists could easily subvert the system by betting on hoaxes or planned actions, and enrich themselves in the process.
Poindexter resigned Tuesday and FutureMAP was terminated, but it spurred complaints that DARPA technocrats were politically tone-deaf.
Tether, who still supports the concepts behind Poindexter’s programs, acknowledged that the project was poorly communicated. He conceded the public might think “people are crazy over there.”
Now he’s worried that Congress could push for more controls over the agency, a move that could wither its entrepreneurial spirit. “DARPA was created to get on the far side, to prevent technological surprise,” he said. “You don’t want to get oversight where you have to ask, ‘Mother, may I?’ ”
Critics, however, say letting DARPA proceed without greater oversight is courting trouble. “Who are the Poindexters we don’t know about?” asked Saffo of the Institute for the Future.
The sense that DARPA’s managers give too little thought to the broad implications of their work was reinforced last year when DARPA-funded biologists said they had built an infectious polio virus from its chemical components, like a biological erector-set project. The virus wasn’t created as a weapon, but the work prompted fears that even more hazardous viruses might be similarly constructed.
“It set back discussions about how to properly defend against [biological weapons] by at least three years,” said Steven Block, a Stanford University expert in biological warfare. New calls for regulation by Congress “had a chilling effect,” he said.
Such episodes have alienated scientists who support unfettered research but view DARPA’s approach to military and national security problems as dangerously prone to errors in judgment.
“We have so few places in the United States that fund truly imaginative, ‘out-of-the-box’ research,” Block said. “I wish there were more agencies like this, but I wish they were less like the one they call DARPA.”