DARPA Tech Forum Previews National Security Future
DARPA Tech Forum Previews
National Security Future
By Cheryl Pellerin, DoD News,
Defense Media Activity.
Saint Louis, Missouri — (DoD
News) — September 14, 2015 — More than 1,400 scientists and engineers
engaged on those and many other topics during the sold-out Sept. 9-11 forum.
Writing in the Wait, What? activity feed, one attendee likened it to the best
science fair ever, on steroids. More than a few said it was the best meeting
they’d ever attended.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter with Arati Prabhakar,
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s "Wait, What?" Future
Technology Forum wrapped up Friday with a remembrance of those who died on 9/11
and presentations covering the bleeding edges of everything from
extraterrestrial life and cold molecules to lighting up the living brain.
DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar told the audience on the forum’s first day
that the ultimate goal of the forum -- in line with the agency’s mission -- “is
to make the pivotal early investments in breakthrough technologies to create
huge new possibilities for national security.”
At DARPA, she added, the job is to take the risks required to reach for huge
impacts in national security capabilities.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened the meeting and other defense officials
spent time there. Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition,
technology and logistics, was there with Stephen Welby, deputy assistant
secretary of defense for systems engineering -- and a DARPA alum, Prabhakar
In one of the day’s sessions, DARPA Program Manager Justin Sanchez announced
research milestones in two DARPA neuroscience programs. One, from the
Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, uses direct links to the brain to give a
sense of touch to prosthetic hands.
DARPA reports that a 28-year-old paralyzed for more than a decade from a
spinal cord injury is the first person to be able to “feel” physical sensations
through a prosthetic hand connected directly to his brain. He also could
identify which of his mechanical fingers was being touched.
In the second milestone, scientists from DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory
program have found that targeted electrical brain stimulation can improve memory.
Robotic limb exhibit at the “Wait, What?"
future technology forum
Electrical arrays implanted in the brain’s memory centers show promise for
helping patients improve scores on memory tests. The research, DARPA says, could
lead to therapies for wounded warriors and others with memory deficits caused by
traumatic brain injury or disease.
In other presentations during the forum, scientists and engineers described
their work and answered questions from the St. Louis and online audience.
Pamela Melroy, deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office and a
former astronaut, discussed a DARPA project called Phoenix that involves
building space robotics in geosynchronous Earth orbit, or GEO.
GEO is a stable region of space 36,000 kilometers, or 22,370 miles, from
Earth. Because the orbital period matches almost exactly the time it takes for
Earth to rotate on its axis in a day, Melroy said, objects in GEO seem to be
hovering directly over one place on the planet.
Because GEO is a stable environment for machines -- but hostile for people
because of high radiation levels -- DARPA thinks the key technology there is
As part of Phoenix, DARPA is building a robotic arm like the one that helped
build the International Space Station but with greater levels of automation and
safety, Melroy said. It has, for example, robot reflexes and compliance control
to minimize the risk of debris from collisions.
Port of Call
“We think this is a critical capability to building a transportation hub that
allows transportation to and from Earth's surface, from low Earth orbit to GEO,
and even beyond Earth orbit,” she added.
Space capabilities are not about a single monolithic satellite with a few
capabilities, Melroy said. DARPA sees them as creating a vibrant, robust
ecosystem that involves transportation, repair, refueling, upgrading and on-site
“So look at the great seafaring port cities in the world for inspiration,”
the former astronaut said, “and imagine a port of call at 36,000 kilometers.”
Another presenter was Tom Dietterich, professor of computer
science at Oregon State University and president of the Association for the
Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.
During a talk on artificial intelligence, he discussed
autonomous AI systems like those that operate some hedge funds, and like the
fully autonomous financial systems that run Wall Street trading. Other examples
are self-driving cars and automated surgical assistants.
AI is enabling technology for such applications, all of which
involve high-stakes decision-making about matters of life and death, severe
injury or huge amounts of money, Dieterrich said.
Some people are afraid of the technology, he added, as
indicated by Stephen Hawking’s recent warning that robotic AI could end mankind
and Elon Musk’s statement that AI is civilization’s biggest existential threat.
Dieterrich says such fears are fed by misconceptions, one of
which is that someday computers will become smarter than people and then one day
they achieve self-awareness and turn against humanity, as did the AI network
Skynet in James Cameron’s 1984 film "The Terminator."
Smarter than People
“In fact, our tool AI systems [for example, personal
assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana] are already much smarter
than we are,” he said. “We wouldn't use them if they weren't superior to
But AI systems won’t be fully autonomous unless people design
them to be that way, Dieterrich said, and give the systems access to resources
like money, electrical power or materials.
“When we give them control over those resources, that's when
we face a challenge,” he added. “So I think the danger of AI is not so much in
artificial intelligence itself … but in the autonomy. What should we give
computers control over?”
Dieterrich himself doesn’t think people should create fully
autonomous systems -- those over which they have no control. And when people do
need the faster-than-human speed and autonomy of computer systems to trade hedge
funds or respond to cyber attacks, he says, they should always leave themselves
the option of pulling the plug.
Are We Alone?
Near the end of the forum, the founding Director of DARPA’s
Biological Technologies Office Geoff Ling moderated a panel titled “Are We Alone
and Have We Been?” During the discussion, a paleontologist-molecular geneticist,
a biophysicist and an astronomer discussed the likelihood and implications of
finding other life in the universe.
As the session wrapped up, Ling observed that some in the
audience might wonder why a national security research and development
organization like DARPA would focus on extraterrestrial life. “DARPA has a
unique mandate,” he explained. “We need to think about things that others really
don't. Where is the next surprise that will come our way? Where's the next
surprise that we can generate? You don't know unless you ask, and you won't find
unless you explore.”
The world of biology is young relative to the fields of
physics, mathematics and chemistry, but biology is a rich discipline and a
place, Ling said, “where surprise is waiting for us.”
Not to engage the science and engineering community in such
discussions, he added, “is not in DARPA's best interest -- not in the nation's
best interest. So if somebody's going to do it, let it be DARPA.”
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