Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Blazing the trail for tech

Defense agency has a long history of exploring wild and risky ideas

IBM scientist Hans Coufal hopes to figure out one day what he called the "holy grail of data storage" -- finding a cheap and efficient way to store information using lasers and holograms.

It's a technology that could revolutionize the way businesses operate. But so far, the dream has been elusive -- scientists have been working on it since the 1960s, pouring tens of millions of dollars into research.

But Coufal's team at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose gave it another shot a few years ago with the help of a federal agency that's known for chasing wild and risky ideas and turning them into viable technologies.

For the past 45 years, DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- has pursued a unique mandate: to explore ideas still in the realm of the imagination.

The agency organizes and funds pioneering research projects geared to building a stronger military and to breaking new ground in science and technology. It's a role that's become more prominent as the struggling technology industry searches for new ideas and the federal government focuses more on defense and security.

"DARPA is one of the most adventurous government agencies," said Coufal, who's been with the IBM research center for more than 20 years. "By taking these large risks, they take the opportunity to discover what nobody expected."

The Arlington, Va., agency is best known as the obscure research organization that built the foundation of the Internet. More recently, DARPA has gained public attention and notoriety for helping the government come up with a system to analyze data as a way to root out terrorist threats.

To technology firms, particularly the research labs of Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Oracle, DARPA is a trailblazer whose work has had tremendous impact, not just on defense, but also on the technology industry.

For example, the Internet and the global positioning system (GPS), once restricted military technologies that have become part of everyday life, emerged largely through DARPA's work.

"DARPA is looking at technologies that are over the horizon," said Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, a policy advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "It is not today or tomorrow (that it focuses on), but the day after tomorrow."

At HP Labs, scientist Regina Ragan is working on a molecular electronics project -- partially funded by DARPA -- that hopes to put 100 billion computer logic and memory devices on a single, square-centimeter chip.

"It's basically a new frontier," said scientist Regina Ragan, who spends her days experimenting with atoms to figure out ways of building smaller circuits. "That's fascinating, not knowing all the answers and trying to figure it out for yourself. You can't just run to a textbook or a colleague. We're basically exploring this territory ourselves."

Sun Microsystems' first product, the computer workstation, was developed with funding from DARPA. Recently, the Santa Clara company also got a grant to build a more powerful and productive supercomputer.

Formed in 1958, DARPA -- formerly known as ARPA -- was created in reaction to the launch of Sputnik, which the U.S. defense establishment feared was a sign of the growing technological power of the Soviet Union.

"Our mission is to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military and prevent technological surprise from harming our national security, " DARPA director Tony Tether testified in March before the U.S. Congressional subcommittee on terrorism, unconventional threats and capabilities in March.

The agency, which has an annual budget of about $3 billion, is run by program managers who are considered experts in their fields. The managers also take on pioneering research projects.

According to the agency's Web site, "The best DARPA program managers have always been freewheeling zealots in pursuit of their goals."

"Many times, they come to DARPA because they have ideas and they can't accomplish it where they are currently," said spokeswoman Jan Walker.

Over the past 40 years, the agency has helped develop military technologies such as the M-16 rifle, unmanned combat planes and a translation device that helped U.S. troops communicate with civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his testimony, Tether cited ongoing DARPA research that many would find wild and unconventional -- such as figuring out "how insects run over rough terrain, geckos climb walls, flies avoid capture and how an octopus hides."

"Imagine if our soldiers and equipment could use some of these same techniques," he said.

But DARPA's work extends well beyond the military. Although the agency is under the Defense Secretary's office, DARPA is autonomous and is not tied to any specific branch of the military or a particular military program.

That has allowed DARPA to explore new areas of research without having to worry about the government or military bureaucracy, said Bob Taylor, who worked as an agency director in the 1960s.

A prime example was the ARPAnet, the computer network built by a DARPA team led by Taylor which was the precursor to the Internet.

"When you focus research on just military missions or just military objectives, it's like cutting off your right arm," Taylor said. "You can't be general and longer-term focused as you could otherwise be. The ARPAnet would not have happened if we had not looked out longer-term without being limited to military objectives."

For technology firms, DARPA offers a way to stay on top of developments in science and technology -- at Uncle Sam's expense.

DARPA organizes consortiums composed of corporations and universities like Stanford and UC Berkeley or other research institutions to work on specific projects.

DARPA foots most of the bill, although technology companies sometimes pitch in.

For example, DARPA gave a research consortium composed of HP and UCLA $12.5 million for the molecular electronics project. The Palo Alto firm matched the grant by investing $13.2 million.

"You sort of become part of an exclusive fraternity of researchers," said Phil Kuekes, a senior computer architect at HP Labs. "It's valuable to have somebody else who is willing to take ideas that are so crazy and to go ahead with it . . . It's a safer way of being adventurous."

Coufal of IBM said DARPA "enables companies to take on research challenges that we couldn't take on our own because (they are) too large."

He pointed to the company's work on holographic data storage that also involves Stanford University. DARPA shouldered half of the project's roughly $32 million tab.

Once a DARPA research project is completed, participating companies are free to exploit the new technology for commercial gain.

"Then it's off to the races," Coufal said.

For the Defense Department, partnering with the industry has become increasingly important, experts said.

While the U.S. military was a major force of innovation after World War II, that role has diminished over the past two decades with the phenomenal growth of the technology industry, experts say.

John Pike, director of, said the military found that it made more sense to buy commercially most of the technology it needs. But it also made sense to work with private companies in pushing new research, because a robust technology industry also benefits the defense establishment.

"(DARPA is) certainly reaping a lot of what previous investments have sown, " said Ross Stapleton-Gray, a former CIA intelligence analyst who is now an independent information technology and policy consultant in Albany.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, DARPA has played a bigger role in the government's search for more sophisticated tools to fight terrorism. But the agency has drawn flak for helping develop technology for scanning enormous amounts of information in a bid to hunt down terrorists.

Privacy and civil rights advocates feared that the federal government was out to build a Big Brother-like system to collect intelligence on its own citizens.

In his testimony, Tether, the DARPA director, denied this, saying, "The Department of Defense is not developing technology so it can maintain dossiers on every American citizen."

But Pike argued that it is "completely inappropriate" for a defense research agency to be working on a project many view as a form of domestic espionage.

"The Defense Department is charged with dropping bombs on bunkers in other countries," he said. "It's none of their business how much hummus I buy."

Aftergood said DARPA's reputation has been hurt because it's been lumped together with the Patriot Act and the "perceived erosion of civil liberties" under Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"There has been a little bit of a taint by association," he said. "It has created a question about where DARPA fits in. Are they part of the Ashcroft Justice Department or are they a purely benign technology enterprise? More and more people suspect the former."

Still, critics don't see any long-term serious damage to DARPA's role and reputation as a result of the debate over the program, called Terrorism Information Awareness.

"The mission of DARPA is as important as ever," Aftergood said. "And they are pursuing it with due diligence."


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was formed in 1958 following the Soviet launch of the Sputnik spacecraft. DARPA's mission was to make sure that the United States had the most technologically advanced military in the world.

Below are some of DARPA's major achievements:

The Internet

It built the ARPAnet in the 1960s and the computer network served as the model for the Internet.


DARPA helped in the initial research in the late 50s and the 60s that led to the creation of the Global Positioning System. While GPS began as a military tool for mapping and navigation, it has become available commercially for business and consumer use.

The M-16 rifle

The agency began a project in the 1960s to modify the Colt AR-15 rifle which led to the development of the M-16 rifle which is now the standard issue shoulder weapon in the U.S. military.

Stealth Aircraft

In the 1970s, DARPA built the prototypes for the B-2 Stealth Bomber and the F-117 tactical fighter.

Unmanned Combat Vehicles

Since the 1970s, DARPA has helped build prototypes for both unmanned aircraft and ground vehicles for use in combat. The agency's Global Hawk and Predator Unmanned Vehicles were both used in the war in Afghanistan.

Terrorist Information Awareness

Currently, DARPA is developing data-mining technology to come up with a system that can be used to sort through an enormous amount of data to detect terrorist threats. .

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