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A Peek Inside DARPA

Researchers at the defense agency invented the precursor to the Internet. So, what’s next? A fault-tolerant wireless network and the next generation of supercomputers.

By Gary Anthes
January 22, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Save for a single manned police car that has sat in front of the building since 9/11, there is nothing about this particular office tower to distinguish it from hundreds of others in Arlington, Va. But inside 3701 N. Fairfax Drive, more than 100 computer scientists, biologists, materials specialists, microsystems experts, mathematicians and engineers are hatching ideas around a staggering variety of new technologies.

It’s the headquarters of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the subjects being studied there include software that can translate and analyze Arabic TV broadcasts, insects with microcontrollers inside their bodies and the next generation of supercomputers.

DARPA’s philosophical underpinnings have changed several times over the years (see “Shifting Missions”), but its mission remains the same. In 1958, in the aftershock of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch, President Eisenhower formed what was then known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency. Two years ago, DARPA Director Tony Tether told a congressional subcommittee, “Our mission is still to prevent technological surprise, but also to create technological surprise for our adversaries.”

DARPA focuses on technologies for military use, especially those deemed too risky for the private sector to tackle on its own. But it has also been a catalyst for many commercial technologies, including timesharing, networking and the Internet, workstations, database technology, operating systems, semiconductors and parallel computing.

Open and Shut

Security is tight at the DARPA offices. Guards are everywhere, and visitors — mostly vendors looking for a piece of DARPA’s $3 billion budget — must surrender their cell phones at the front desk if they contain cameras.

At the same time, DARPA is extraordinarily open for a military agency. Its main Web site, www.darpa.mil, is packed with detailed accounts of what the agency is up to and where it hopes to go in the future. DARPA’s six offices have undertaken hundreds of projects, including the following:

The Information Processing Technology Office (IPTO) is soliciting proposals for “cognitive” technologies that enable systems to reason, learn from experience, explain themselves and reflect on their own capabilities.

The Information Exploitation Office is working to develop a handheld, command-guided “loitering cruise munition,” a tiny guided missile that soldiers can use to fire at targets that are behind and inside buildings.

The Microsystems Technology Office is sponsoring development of an atomic clock smaller than a sugar cube.

The Intestinal Fortitude Program in the Defense Sciences Office aims to use beneficial bacteria in the gut to protect soldiers from enteric disease.

In its Deep Speak program, the Strategic Technology Office (STO) is developing techniques that will allow communications signals to penetrate deep into buildings and underground facilities.



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