Tagdarpa

DARPA Has Seen the Future of Computing … And It’s Analog

DARPA UPSIDE analog processors

By definition, a computer is a machine that processes and stores data as ones and zeroes. But the U.S. Department of Defense wants to tear up that definition and start from scratch.

Through its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the DoD is funding a new program called UPSIDE, short for Unconventional Processing of Signals for Intelligent Data Exploitation. Basically, the program will investigate a brand-new way of doing computing without the digital processors that have come to define computing as we know it.

The aim is to build computer chips that are a whole lot more power-efficient than today’s processors — even if they make mistakes every now and then.

The way Darpa sees it, today’s computers — especially those used by mobile spy cameras in drones and helicopters that have to do a lot of image processing — are starting to hit a dead end. The problem isn’t processing. It’s power, says Daniel Hammerstrom, the Darpa program manager behind UPSIDE. And it’s been brewing for more than a decade.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Darpa Has Seen the Future of Computing … And It’s Analog

Former DARPA Director Heading Up New Experimental Technology Department At Google

Remember how earlier this year Regina Dugan, the former director of DARPA, took a job at Google? Now we know what she’s up to there:

Google has also created a department within Motorola—Advanced Technology and Projects—comprised of researchers charged with finding cutting-edge technologies that could give Motorola’s products an edge. And the executive refresh includes a new senior vice president, Regina Dugan, a former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s long-term research arm. […]

But whether the DARPA research model can work in the fast-evolving world of smartphones is unclear, says Chetan Sharma, a wireless analyst in Seattle. “Regina does bring in outside perspective specially related to projects that are leaps, versus incremental steps,” he says. “However, this will need to be executed under the constraints of competition, time, and money.”

While DARPA has had some storied successes—such as the precursor to the Internet—it also freely admits that it often fails. And it has pursued some odd projects, such as setting up a research program to figure out how to reassemble shredded documents.

Technology Review: Can DARPA’s Strategy Help Motorola Compete Again?

The Weaponization of Neuroscience

Jon Bardin wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education on how science can be weaponized, even decades after it’s conducted. For example, this DARPA project is based on unrelated research from the 1960s:

In a small, anonymous office in the Trump Tower, 28 floors above Wall Street, a man sits in front of a computer screen sifting through satellite images of a foreign desert. The images depict a vast, sandy emptiness, marked every so often by dunes and hills. He is searching for man-made structures: houses, compounds, airfields, any sign of civilization that might be visible from the sky. The images flash at a rate of 20 per second, so fast that before he can truly perceive the details of each landscape, it is gone. He pushes no buttons, takes no notes. His performance is near perfect.

Or rather, his brain’s performance is near perfect. The man has a machine strapped to his head, an array of electrodes called an electroencephalogram, or EEG, which is recording his brain activity as each image skips by. It then sends the brain-activity data wirelessly to a large computer. The computer has learned what the man’s brain activity looks like when he sees one of the visual targets, and, based on that information, it quickly reshuffles the images. When the man sorts back through the hundreds of images—most without structures, but some with—almost all the ones with buildings in them pop to the front of the pack. His brain and the computer have done good work.

Chronicles of Higher Education: From Bench to Bunker

(Thanks Justin!)

DARPA Training Computers to Write Dossiers

DARPA is trying to put me out of a job:

They look a bit like communally written Wikipedia pages. But these articles—concise profiles of people and organizations, complete with lists of connected organizations, people, and events—were in fact written by computers, in a new bid by the Pentagon to build machines that can follow global news events and provide intelligence analysts with useful summaries in close to real time. […]

On the new site, if you search for information on the Nigerian jihadist movement Boko Haram, you get this entirely computer-generated summary: “Founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, Boko Haram is led by Ibrahim Abubakar Shekau. (Former leaders include Mohammed Yusuf.) It has headquarters in Maiduguri. It has been described as ‘a new radical fundamentalist sect,’ ‘the main anchor for mayhem in the state,’ ‘a fractured sect with no clear structure,’ and ‘the misguided extremist sect.’ “

Lucky for me:

The profile of Barack Obama, for example, correctly identifies him as the president of the United States, but then summarizes him this way: “Obama has been described as ‘Nobel Peace Prize winner,’ ‘the only reasonable guy in the room,’ ‘an anti-apartheid campus divestment activist,’ and ‘the most trusted politician in the CR-poll.’ ”

At another point it notes, “Obama is married to Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama; other family members include Henry Healy, Malia Obama, and Ann Dunham.” (Healy is a distant Obama cousin from Moneygall, Ireland. Obama’s younger daughter, Sasha, isn’t mentioned.)

The system lacks real-world knowledge that would help a human analyst recognize something as false, humorous, or plainly irrelevant.

MIT Technology Review: An Online Encyclopedia that Writes Itself

Yes, it’s a far cry from replacing your favorite non-fiction writers, but the possibility that this sort of thing could start to cut into the total number of paid writing and editing positions in the next few years is starting to get real.

See also: Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?

Russia Wants Its Own DARPA

RIA Novosti reports on Putin’s plan for the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects in the Defense Industry, a Russian equivalent to DARPA.

President Vladimir Putin has submitted to parliament a bill on the foundation’s establishment, which is expected to become Russia’s answer to the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The foundation will be tasked with informing the country’s leadership on projects that can ensure Russian superiority in defense technology.

It will also analyze the risks of any Russian technological backwardness and technological dependence on other powers.

Full Story: RIA Novosti: Russia to Take on ‘High Risk’ Defense Research Projects

(via Wired Danger Room)

For DARPA, What’s After Autonomous Cars? Humanoid Robots

Word on the street is that DARPA is following up its autonomous vehicles Grand Challenge with a humanoid robots challenge. According to Travis Deyle:

It seems we’re going to have a new DARPA Grand Challenge! The BAA with formal details should be out very soon, but for now we’re bringing you the unofficial, preliminary details based on notes from Dr. Gill Pratt’s talk at DTRA Industry Day: The new Grand Challenge is for a humanoid robot (with a bias toward bipedal designs) that can be used in rough terrain and for industrial disasters. The robot will be required to maneuver into and drive an open-frame vehicle (eg. tractor), proceed to a building and dismount, ingress through a locked door using a key, traverse a 100 meter rubble-strewn hallway, climb a ladder, locate a leaking pipe and seal it by closing off a nearby valve, and then replace a faulty pump to resume normal operations — all semi-autonomously with just “supervisory teleoperation.” That’s a tough challenge, but it should be fun! It looks like there will be six hardware teams to develop new robots, and twelve software teams using a common platform (PETMAN anyone?!). The most crazy part about all of this: The United States is getting back into the humanoid robot game… in a big way! […]

The US has largely turned its back on legged humanoid robots over the last two decades (unlike Japan). I actually thought this was a good? thing, particularly for service and home robots, but perhaps the military perspective is altogether different? This is sort of ironic given that Japanese roboticists are (somewhat) refocusing on non-legged robots in the wake of the Fukushima embarrassment. [For those not in the know, Japanese roboticists have been chided by the government for their inability to apply robots in the disaster. Furthermore, there was some embarrassment when iRobot, a foreign company, stepped in to lend robotic assistance. ]

Hizook: New DARPA Grand Challenge for Humanoid Robots — Preliminary (Unofficial) Details

What’s Next for Libraries?

I’ve mentioned only in passing this incredible comment from MetaFilter on the dismal state of funding for libraries even as they become more essential. It’s too long to reproduce here and an excerpt won’t do, so go and read it and come back.

OK, so then what’s next for libraries? I don’t know, but there are a few people trying to figure it out.

Your Future Library is a group working to create an online journal for sharing best practices on information access. They’re hoping to bridge the gap between local libraries and those interested in digital dissemination of information. There’s not much on their site yet (they gave me a flyer at ContactCon), but you can sign-up for a newsletter to keep in touch.

Meanwhile Fiarce Dunne, a librarian interested in the intersection between local libraries and makerlabs (and the guy who brought he DARPA/MAKE connection to my attention), has started a project called Library Cult which is also in early stages.

DARPA Director Taking Job at Google

Wired reports:

Darpa director Regina Dugan will soon be stepping down from her position atop the Pentagon’s premiere research shop to take a job with Google. Dugan, whose controversial tenure at the agency lasted just under three years, was “offered and accepted at senior executive position” with the internet giant, according to Darpa spokesman Eric Mazzacone. She felt she couldn’t say no to such an “innovative company,” he adds. […]

The Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) is also actively investigating hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of contracts that Darpa gave out to RedX Defense — a bomb-detection firm that Dugan co-founded, and still partially owns. A separate audit is examining a sample of the 2,000 other research contracts Darpa has signed during Dugan’s tenure, to “determine the adequacy of Darpa’s selection, award, and administration of contracts and grants,” according to a military memorandum.

Results of the inspector general’s work haven’t been released. And the work had “no impact” on Dugan’s decision, according to her spokesman, Mazzacone. “The only reason” she decided to leave the Pentagon was the allure of working at Google.

Danger Room: Darpa Director Bolts Pentagon for Google

Update: She’s been cleared of charges of wrongdoing.

The Military-Maker Complex: DARPA Infiltrates the Hackerspace Movement

In a two part essay Fiacre O’Duinn explains why DARPA’s partnership with MAKE magazine to fund 1,000 makerlabs in U.S high schools is antithetical to the maker movement and wonders whether it’s a line in the sand that will divide the movement:

While the MENTOR program involves cooperation, this is done so as part of challenge competitions, in which teams compete against each other for cash prizes. This seems in stark contrast to how maker culture has developed to date. Why is competition necessary? If the goal is truly for education using the hacker/maker model, can learning and exploration not take place merely for pleasure, in a completely open environment, or must it be reduced to yet another lesson in the need to hoard and compete for resources and information?

Third, why has the field of study in these makerspaces narrowed only to STEM topics? What happened to the transdisiplinary focus of hacker/maker communities that make them so innovative? Where are the arts? Where are wearables, knitivism, DIY molecular gastronomy? Why do the challenges involve working on unmanned air vehicles or robots, projects that are of interest to DARPA for their military applications? Shouldn’t we encourage STEAM rather than STEM? Could it be that regardless of their educational potential, these topics have no possible military application? With such a narrow focus, one could ask which culture will win the day, maker or military?

Finally, why are the full details of the Make proposal and specifics of the agreement with DARPA not being made public? Because in dealing with the military, lack of transparency is simply a matter of course. This works well for the military but why is it necessary for a community project involving children? Why was a “Secret” clearance level needed to work on designing modules for the program, according to this job advertisement? This lack of transparency also leaves other questions unanswered. For example, as the program expands to over 1000 schools, will military personnel be brought in to teach? This last question brings me to issues of recruitment, STEM education and the military.

The biggest issue of all may be the use of the the MENTOR program as a military recruitment vehicle.

Make, DARPA and the line in the sand, #1

Make, DARPA and the line in the sand, #2

I’ve long opposed military recruitment programs in schools, but what might the benefits of such a program be? I’ve been thinking lately that in these times of austerity, and given the general difficulty in getting public funding for education and social programs in the U.S even when we’re not in a recession, tying social programs to hawkish programs like defense and law enforcement may be the only way to go.

In his “State of the World” in 2009, Bruce Sterling suggested taking a national defense position on climate change:

If I wanted to be politically effective, rather than visionary, I’d disguise myself as a right-wing Green, probably some kind of hunting-shooting NASCAR “conservationist,” and I’d infiltrate the Republicans this year. […]

So we publicly recognize the climate crisis: just as if we suddenly discovered it ourselves. And we don’t downplay the climate crisis: we OVERPLAY the crisis.

“Then we blame the crisis on foreigners. We’re not liberal weak sisters ‘negotiating Kyoto agreements.’ We’re assembling a Coalition of the Willing tp threaten polluters.

“We’re certainly not bowing the knee to the damn Chinese — they own our Treasury, unfortunately, but we completely change the terms of that debate. When the Chinese open a coal mine and threaten the world’s children with asthma, we will take out that threat with a cruise missile!

That’s our new negotiating position on the climate crisis: we’re the military, macho hard line.

Would it work? Would it be worth selling out the rest of your values for?

I don’t know, but also consider the sorry state of jobs in the country. On the one hand, Newt Gingrich’s moon base idea was justified as a defense measure, but it was widely seen as a proposal as a jobs program for NASA’s home state. Maybe a moon base was too wild an idea, but could something like sci-fi work? Remember, the interstate highway system in the U.S. was actually called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways and was justified as a defense measure. If we want a jobs program to rebuild or crumbling infrastructure, it seems like we could do a lot worse than call it a homeland security program.

So given the sorry state of STEM education, and the expense of setting up hackerspaces and the absolutely dismal state of public libraries (which many suggest turning into hacker spaces), is it time to consider letting DARPA build hackerspaces for the kids, even if it means letting in military recruiters and having the kids focused on making weapons?

I can see the pragmatic benefit, but I still just can’t justify it. As Fiarce points out, the program is just too antithetical to the maker spirit. And although as many have pointed out DARPA has funded all sorts of research over the years, including the creation of the Internet, the MENTOR program will specifically include a competition for designing weaponized vehicles for military use. DARPA may do some good work too, but having kids design weapons for the military crosses a line for me.

So will it split the community? Someone with more knowledge of the history of the computer hacking movement and how the NSA and other defense agencies tried to hijack it might have more insight than me. But it seems that if the maker movement has any momentum of its own, then this shouldn’t be fatal to it. Those who want to collaborate openly and make things other than war planes, and those attracted to the militaristic elements of the DARPA program will go there. Hopefully the maker movement will be able to sustain both strands, much like the computer hacker movement managed to sustain an open source movement.

See also: 3 BIG questions (and lots of smaller ones) about DARPA & Make

DARPA Offers $50,000 Prize for Techniques for Reconstructing Shredded Documents

shredded paper by Ryan Hyde

Today’s troops often confiscate the remnants of destroyed documents in war zones, but reconstructing them is a daunting task. DARPA’s Shredder Challenge calls upon computer scientists, puzzle enthusiasts and anyone else who likes solving complex problems to compete for up to $50,000 by piecing together a series of shredded documents.

The goal is to identify and assess potential capabilities that could be used by our warfighters operating in war zones, but might also create vulnerabilities to sensitive information that is protected through our own shredding practices throughout the U.S. national security community.

Do you have the skills to reconstruct shredded documents and solve the puzzle?

Can you form a team to help solve the complex physical and analytical problems associated with document reconstruction?

If so, register today for a chance to win $50,000!

DARPA’s Shredder Challenge

(Photo by Ryan Hyde)

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