Technologies developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have found their way into the hands of consumers ever since the agency’s founding in 1958. For example, the ARPANET network laid the groundwork for the development of the Internet and the Global Positioning System (GPS) now allows users to obtain street maps and directions for locations around the world.
However, in today’s global environment, increasingly sophisticated technology is available to users around the world, including those who may threaten U.S. national security, said Arati Prabhakar, director of DARPA and a former AAAS Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow, at a 3 May AAAS luncheon.
“If we don’t use globally available technologies more intelligently, we’re just going to have tire tracks on our backs, so that has to be a part of how we do what we do,” said Prabhakar, speaking at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.
Though still a leader in innovation worldwide, the United States has lost the unique technological and industrial advantages it had over the rest of the world in the years after World War II due to globalization, making it imperative that the team at DARPA become the best users of globally available technology, Prabhakar said. “We’ve faced adversaries in the past who have far more human beings on the ground,” she said. “That’s not how we have prevailed in the past. How we prevail is by being smarter and using technology.”
DARPA was founded in 1958 after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik took the United States by surprise. “We were very clear as a nation that we did not want to have that kind of technological surprise in the future. So DARPA was created to prevent that kind of technological surprise,” Prabhakar said. “For the 55 last years, we’ve done our job by creating a few surprises of our own,” including the development of precision navigation, stealth technology, and unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones.
In the context of federal R&D funding, DARPA is a relatively small organization with 240 employees and an annual budget of $2.9 billion before the federal budget cuts mandated by sequestration and $2.7 billion after. DARPA’s mission, “to prevent and to create technological surprise in a way that creates powerful options for our nation’s strategic interests,” has remained unchanged since 1958, though the global context in which DARPA operates has changed dramatically.
The U.S. faced a monolithic threat in the Soviet Union during the Cold War but since then, nation-states have threatened national security as well as groups and individuals. “I came to DARPA initially in 1986 and at that time, it seemed like the Cold War was going to go on forever,” Prabhakar said. “Of course, a few years later, it ended very abruptly, right before our eyes.” To address the complex and continually changing nature of threats to U.S. national security, DARPA is continually working with the private sector to capitalize on its adaptability, speed and cycle times, Prabhakar said.
Meanwhile, growing pressures on public spending, including increasing healthcare costs, mean that those working in national security may be forced to do more with less, though no one is willing to accept decreased security. Due to sequestration, DARPA programs will be cut 8% across the board and employees will participate in furloughs as necessary, but the cuts could be indicative of shifting funding priorities, Prabhakar said. “We have to be ready for whatever comes in terms of those cost pressures,” she said.
Using globally available technology more efficiently will also help decrease cost. For example, the private sector has been an innovator in big-data analytics, developing technologies that may be useful for DARPA as the agency also conducts ongoing research in this area.
However, becoming the best users of globally available technology is just one of the many ongoing projects at DARPA. Game-changing new systems concepts such as hypersonic technology “where speed becomes the way that we create a surprise for our adversary,” are also in the works, Prabhakar said. Other areas of interest for DARPA include probabilistic programming for advanced machine learning, synthetic biology and technology that will replace GPS.
DARPA will also participate in President Obama’s BRAIN initiative, along with the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. “We really see here an opportunity for the new insights about brain function to give us potentially some amazing new capabilities to help warfighters across that whole spectrum of what they do,” Prabhakar said.
At the same time, Prabhakar stressed, none of DARPA’s achievements would have been possible without support from the U.S. technology ecosystem, including universities and the private sector. “When I think back about what I’m proudest of from my time at DARPA, it’s the fact that as we engage with universities, companies large and small, and other parts of the entire science and technology community across the United States, we build these deep, strong communities,” Prabhakar said. “That is the real capability because that’s what allows us to go on and build technologies and military systems.”
Arati Prabhakar discusses DARPA’s involvement in the BRAIN initiative. [Credit: AAAS/Carla Schaffer]
Learn more about the 2013 AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.
Learn more about the impact of sequestration on federal R&D spending.