The Untold Stories of DARPA – The Government Agency That Changed The World S13 Ep42

Guest: Sharon Weinberger author of "The Imagineers of War"

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While many are familiar with the story of how DARPA (actually it was its predecessor ARPA) invented the internet. What few are familiar with is the untold stories of of DARPA and how its innovators solved some of the most pressing problems we faced.

DARPA

DARPA was created in 1958 in response to the launch of Sputnick with the mission to ensure that the United States didn't find itself behind the Soviets when it came to technology – especially in space. While its focus was on technology and innovation for the Pentagon, its work has had significant impact on civilian life.

This weeks guest, Sharon Weinberger, shares some of the untold stories abut DARPA based on her newly released book, The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World

The Untold Stories of DARPA

DARPA is responsible for some of the most important technologies of the past six decades. Some of its projects are successes, some are failures, and some are best left to history to judge. Here is a list of DARPA’s most notable—and in some cases notorious—contributions to science, technology and warfare.

Driverless Cars: Today’s driverless automobiles being developed by Google, Uber and others are a direct result of DARPA’s robotic car races that began in 2004, with a course that ran across the Mojave Desert. The first winner of it's Grand Challenge competition was recruited by Google to start work on the company’s autonomous vehicles.

The Internet: More than any single person or agency, DARPA can lay claim to having “invented” the Internet. In the 1960s, it sponsored development of a system of networked computers called the ARPANET, the predecessor to the modern Internet. DARPA’s work on areas such as networking, packet switching and time-sharing laid the foundations for personal computing.

Drones: During the Vietnam War, the agency was responsible for developing the first armed drones. In the 1990s, the agency funded an Israeli aerospace engineer to build an unmanned aerial vehicle, which later evolved into the Predator, the armed drone most closely associated with targeted killings.

Agent Orange: In the 1960s, DARPA introduced chemical defoliation to Southeast Asia, believing that it could help eliminate jungle cover used by communist insurgents fighting the U.S.-backed government in South Vietnam. The work grew from early experiments into a widespread military spraying program that today is held responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and sicknesses.

Border Wall Technology: In 1962, scientists working for DARPA outlined a proposal to create a barrier between North and South Vietnam. Eventually, that proposal morphed into the infamous McNamara Line, an electronic barrier that failed. Yet many of the concepts and technologies developed by DARPA, such as tethered aerostats and seismic sensors, are now used along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Stealth Aircraft: In the 1970s, DARPA sponsored development of the first “invisible aircraft,” a stealth prototype codenamed Have Blue. The stealth aircraft was designed to be invisible to radar in order to slip past Soviet air defense systems. The U.S. military’s current fleet of stealth aircraft, including the stealth helicopters used in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, can all be traced back to DARPA.

Nuclear Test Detection: One of DARPA’s earliest projects was a network of sensors and satellites to detect foreign nuclear tests. President John F. Kennedy relied on DARPA’s results in deciding to go forward with a Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 that halted nuclear tests in the atmosphere, oceans and outer space.

Modern Seismography: To advance work in underground nuclear test detection, DARPA invested heavily in the discipline of seismography and built a worldwide network of seismograph stations. The sensor network, and DARPA funding, is widely credited with advancing seismography and allowing scientists to collect the data needed to confirm the theory of plate tectonics.

M-16: During the Vietnam War, DARPA bought the Armalite-15 rifle for South Vietnamese soldiers. Eventually, it became the M-16, the standard weapon used by all three U.S. military services.

Artificial Intelligence: In the 1980s, DARPA launched a billion dollar initiative to develop artificial intelligence. The agency invested in everything from computer vision—teaching machines to “see” —to thinking computers that could help military pilots fly aircraft. The program was shut down in less than a decade and branded a “failure” at the time. Yet now some of the technologies DARPA invested in, like voice recognition, are widely used in the commercial sector (iPhone’s Siri, for example, was a spinoff of a DARPA project).

Robotics: DARPA has been the leading investor in robotics in the United States for decades. Many of today’s most recognizable robots, like iRobot’s PackBot, a bomb disposal robot used in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Roomba, the vacuum cleaner robot, can be credited to DARPA.

Data Mining: In the days after 9/11, the agency was responsible for creating one of the most high profile and controversial data-mining projects, called Total Information Awareness. The project was designed to trawl through large amounts of data, from car rental records to intelligence reports, to ferret out domestic terrorists. It was accused of being an Orwellian spy program and the work was moved to the National Security Agency.

Presidential Protection: After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the agency ran a top-secret project to protect the president. Though many of its ideas were rejected as too fanciful, like a proposal to protect the president with a mirage-producing system, DARPA was responsible for the first armored presidential limousine.

Neuroengineering: DARPA in the 1970s helped lay the foundation for Brain-Computer Interface (brain-driven computers), imagining a future where humans could control machines, like drones, with nothing more than their minds. Today, DARPA is working on neural chips designed to help those with brain injuries recover memories and prosthetics controlled directly by the brain.

Satellites: Created in 1958 as the nation’s first space agency, it was responsible for developing the first communications satellite and first spy satellite. The agency also played a brief but critical role in sponsoring the Transit satellite, which led to the Global Positioning System.

Lessons From DARPA Success

Sharon shared three lessons from the success from DARPA:

  1. Price of Success is Failure: Be willing to try, fail and then learn from it.
  2. Be Clear About What Problem to Solve
  3. Function is More Important Than Form
Listen to this weeks show to hear Sharon Weinberger share  some of the untold stories of DARPA.

About Sharon Weinberger:

Sharon Weinberger is the executive editor for news at Foreign Policy. Her most recent book, published in March 2017, is The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World (Knopf, 2017). She is currently a non-resident global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Nature, Discover, BBC.com, Slate, Wired, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and the Financial Times, among other publications. She was previously a senior editor at Aviation Week and a co-founding writer and editor for Wired's national security blog, Danger Room.

Click below to listen to hear Sharon Weinberger share the untold stories of DARPA.

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