The Grill: ARPA Pioneer Charles M. Herzfeld on the Hot Seat

The 'godfather' of ARPA talks about the days of funding crazy ideas like computer networks, todays lack of effective leadership in government research and the price we may pay.

Charles M. Herz­feld is currently a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va. He was hired by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as ARPA, in 1961 to head up research in ballistic missile defense, and he became ARPAs fifth director in 1965. (ARPA was later known as DARPA, after the word defense was added to the agencys name.) He also served as director of Defense Research & Engineering, to which ARPA reports, from 1990 to 1991.

What was your introduction to computing? When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, in 1948 or so, John von Neumann came and gave three seminars on electronic computing. He was instrumental in getting the ENIAC built, and he came to tell us about it. It was hugely important stuff, and it changed my life absolutely.

Then, before ARPA, J.C.R. Licklider gave two or three lectures at the Pentagon, and I remember those vividly. He said, The way we are doing computing is really pretty stupid. I think theres a better way. He was a brilliant man, and I became a disciple of his.

Dossier

Charles M. Herzfeld
Name: Charles M. Herzfeld Title: Senior fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies; former director, ARPALocation: Arlington, Va.Favorite technology: Google Earth and similar sites. "The modern magic carpet [it] goes anywhere. [I] wanted one as a kid; now I have one."Technology pet peeve: Software written for experts, not for regular users.Favorite nonwork pastime: Scuba diving and underwater photography.Philosophy in a nutshell: "You owe the world; don't ever give up."Epitaph: "My life was a great trip. I was a grateful traveler."Ask him to do anything but: "Clean up my office papers."Best movie ever: CasablancaSomething people don't know about him: "I am really shy, in spite of appearances."

And a few years later, you and Licklider would end up at ARPA together, with Licklider the first director of its Information Processing Techniques Office. Yes. IPTO was one of the things at ARPA that I became godfather of. I was the go-to guy if it got into trouble.

[The IPTO] directors changed the world, but I claim to be the godfather, not the father. And as godfather, I took their message to Congress.

What else did you do as godfather? I signed the first two or three ARPA orders in 1966 and 1967 as director. I said, Do that build a network, however small and crappy it is. Lick was gone by then, but I had recruited Bob Taylor as the follow-on.

One day, Taylor dropped into my office, and he got $1 million in 20 minutes. [When Taylor recounts this story] he acts like I was sitting in my chair handing out million-dollar checks, but not so. I was sure that networking computers would change computing. I do not claim to have foreseen what happened, but I knew Licklider was on to something.

In those days, did you casually hand out big sums like that very often? Whenever it was needed. My secret was that I always had money because there was a long list of things we were doing that we didnt have to do. I was ruthless about that.

What else did IPTO do in those early times? We created the whole artificial intelligence community and funded it. And we created the computer science world. When we started [IPTO], there were no computer science departments or computer science professionals in the world. None.

Do you agree with the people who say that DARPA has pulled back from long-range, high-risk projects? There certainly has been a change, and its not for the better. But it may be inevitable.

Im not sure one could start the old ARPA nowadays. It would be illegal, perhaps. We now live under tight controls by many people who dont 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. Its very hard to do that today.

But why? Why couldnt a Licklider come in today and do big things? Because the people that you have to persuade are too busy, dont know enough about the subject and are highly risk-averse.

When President Eisenhower said, You, Department X, will do Y, theyd salute and say, Yes, sir. Now they say, Well get back to you. I blame Congress for a good part of it. And agency heads are all wishy-washy. Whats missing is leadership that understands what it is doing.

The Washington Post recently ran a Page One 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 didnt 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 dont know what to do with, and we are buying more every day, to the tune of billions of dollars a year. Whats missing is leadership that understands what it is doing. The whole thing is just off the rails.

Whats going on at the National Science Foundation? My friends complain that they have to submit 10 proposals to get one funded. Cuckoo. And its 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 unhappy surprise like 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.

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