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The IT Godfather Speaks: Q&A With Charles M. Herzfeld

By Gary Anthes
September 24, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Do you agree with some today that DARPA has pulled back from the long-range, high-risk projects?

There certainly has been a change, and it's not for the better. But it may be inevitable. I'm not sure one could start the old ARPA nowadays. It would be illegal, perhaps. We now live under tight controls by many people who don't understand much about substance.

What was unique about IPTO was that it was very broad technically and philosophically, and nobody told you how to structure it. We structured it. It's very hard to do that today.

But why? Why couldn't a Licklider come in today and do big things?

Because the people that you have to persuade are too busy, don't know enough about the subject and are highly risk-averse. When President Eisenhower said, "You, Department X, will do Y," they'd salute and say, "Yes, sir." Now they say, "We'll get back to you." I blame Congress for a good part of it. And agency heads are all wishy-washy. What's missing is leadership that understands what it is doing.

The Washington Post [on Aug. 13] ran a Page 1 story saying that the FBI had given emergency responders $25 million in "computer kits" for exchanging information on suspected explosives, including weapons of mass destruction. But, The Post said, many of the kits didn't work and some were just abandoned. What do you make of that kind of report?

We are becoming incapable of handling a technology challenge of any major magnitude. We are losing the ability to do big, complicated things. In your example, nobody thought that someone had to organize a maintenance space for repairs, spare parts and so on. They only thought about buying the radios.

Is it partly a failure of technology?

Absolutely not. We have technology on the shelf we don't know what to do with, and we are buying more every day, to the tune of billions of dollars a year. What's missing is leadership that understands what it is doing. The whole thing is just off the rails.

What's the story at the National Science Foundation?

My friends complain that they have to submit 10 proposals to get one funded. Cuckoo. And it's tremendously demoralizing and very inefficient. The process is too risk-averse. But doing really good research is a high-risk proposition. If the system does not fund thinking about big problems, you think about small problems.

Could there be another Sputnik?

Yes, I expect it. In the biological world, it may be an accident. Someone is doing virus research and comes up with something that spreads easily and kills a lot of people. There is terrorism. It is absolutely thinkable that these guys will steal a nuclear weapon, have some technical help and blow it off in New York Harbor.

Gary Anthes is a Computerworld national correspondent.

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