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10 DARPA Projects That Could Change The World

by David Tormsen
fact checked by Jamie Frater

The US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was created in 1958 in response to the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite. Its goal was to make sure that America would never be caught with its pants down in the technology race again. They achieved that goal in spades, being directly or indirectly responsible for the development of countless technological innovations that have changed millions of lives, from stealth planes to GPS and, of course, ARPANET, the precursor to the modern Internet. The American military-industrial complex still has a lot of money to invest in technological research and development, and here are 10 current DARPA projects that could revolutionize the world.

10 Memex

Memex: Dark web search engine – BBC Click

In February 2015, DARPA announced that it was working on developing a search engine for the Deep Web. Most of the Deep Web is either inaccessible or only accessible through encrypted networks like Tor or 12P. While it is technically feasible for search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo to expand their indexing into the Deep Web, there are few if any commercial incentives for them to do so. However, DARPA soon stepped in by announcing the development of the Memex search engine.

Much of the original impetus behind the development of Memex was to help governments and law enforcement perform searches for narrow sets of interests or search terms and obtain more useful results than what are usually given by commercial search engines, in order to focus on issues like human trafficking, slavery, and the drug trade. While initially designed for government and military use, it is receiving increasing attention as a potential Google-killer due to its potential civilian and commercial applications.

One member of the team behind Memex described the end goals:

Advanced web crawling and scraping technologies, with a dose of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, with the goal of being able to retrieve virtually any content on the internet in an automated way. Eventually our system will be like an army of robot interns that can find stuff for you on the web, while you do important things like watch cat videos.

9 RAM Replay

RAM in this case stands for “Restoring Active Memory.” RAM Replay seeks to better allow individuals to remember episodic memories and learned skills. They are hoping to develop ways to enhance recall of both declarative memory (facts and experiences) and procedural memory (unconscious information allowing an individual to perform learned skills).

Studies on animals have shown that stored memories are unconsciously reactivated during sleep and wakefulness in a process called neural replay, which in terms of brain activity, closely resembles patterns present when a memory is being encoded. DARPA seeks to study how the engagement of the replay process, frequency of activation, and the time between each replay occurrence affect subsequent performance on memory and skill-based tasks. Studies have shown that sensory cues (such as particular smells) and electrical stimulation of the scalp can affect how well a person remembers a particular skill. Understanding these processes could uncover the physiological or environmental factors that affect how well a memory or skill is retained.

According to program manager Dr. Justin Sanchez:

Unconventional memory aids are everywhere today, from simple mnemonics to sophisticated smartphone apps. But many of these techniques focus on just a few of the many aspects that influence memory. In the long run, we hope RAM Replay will identify core memory-strengthening mechanisms and give rise to a generalizable set of solutions applicable to the challenge of memory reliability in an increasingly information-dense world. That could benefit civilians and Service members alike in areas as diverse as general education, job retraining and battlefield awareness.

8 Energy Autonomous Tactical Robot

SPECTRUM: Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot Converts Biomass Sources into Electrical Energy

In 2012, rumors spread on the Internet that the US military was working on a horrifying flesh-eating robot. Thankfully, this was somewhat of a misnomer. DARPA has been developing a system called the Energy Autonomous Tactical Robot, or EATR. Designed to consume plant-based biomass for energy, it is equipped with a gripper and chainsaw to collect twigs, grass clippings, paper, and wood chips as green power sources. This would allow the robot to continue to perform missions and operations without the need for conventional sources of energy or refueling. However, it is also being designed to make use of such sources (gasoline, heavy fuel, kerosene, diesel, propane, coal, cooking oil, and solar energy) when appropriate. It is intended to directly support combat troops in the battlefield by carrying backpacks and other material, providing weapons and support, extracting casualties, and providing a convenient power source.

There was a minor flurry of lurid news that the military was developing man-eating robots for the battlefield. Fears that the technology will be used on humans are groundless, or so says Harry Schoell, CEO of Cyclone Power Technologies, the company funded by DARPA to develop the robot: “We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission.” They have taken pains to insist that their robot is “strictly vegetarian.”

Well, that’s a relief. Also, the possibility of a carrion-feeding robot roaming battlefields is unlikely, as desecration of the dead is a war crime. The technology does have a few potential civil applications, such as the possibility of an engine allowing you to power your car using food waste when you’re low on gas money. Still, its not too difficult to imagine a situation of marauding, man-eating robots as the end point of this technology.

7 Narrative Networks

With the West losing ground in the war of ideas to threats like ISIS, the US military has increasingly become interested in determining how stories and narratives affect human thinking and behavior. With this in mind, they have developed the Narrative Networks program, designed to “take narratives and make them quantitatively analyzable in a rigorous, transparent, and repeatable fashion.” Much early research was focused on watching ideas spread through social networks, but the project has shifted focus to micro-facial feature analysis and MRI scans to determine the effect stories and ideas have on human beings.

According to one DARPA paper:

Narratives exert a powerful influence on human thoughts, emotions and behavior and can be particularly important in security contexts. [ . . . ] In conflict resolution and counter-terrorism scenarios, detecting the neural response underlying empathy induced by stories is of critical importance.

Some recent research involved undergraduates being hooked up to MRI machines and shown Hitchcock films as well as others such as Alien, Misery, Munich, and Cliffhanger. The results showed that looming emotional threats tended to reduce spatial and conceptual awareness of the surrounding world.

The end goal is to create devices that can surreptitiously detect the influence of narrative on the human psyche. As DARPA says, “Efforts that rely solely on standoff/non-invasive/non-detectable sensors are highly encouraged.” Some are worried about DARPA’s interest in this technology, such as George Mason University anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, who said, “[M]ost rational human beings would believe that if we could have a world where nobody does military neuroscience, we’d all be better off. But for some people in the Pentagon, it’s too delicious to ignore.”

6 Pathogen Predators, THoR, And Epidemic Forecasting

The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a threat to the world, both for their potential to be used in military or terrorist attacks or simply as an emerging epidemic. DARPA has decided to think outside the box and figure out how to make bacteria work for us rather than against us. The idea is to use living predatory bacteria to treat bacterial infections caused by biological weapons and antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Some pathogen predators, such as Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus and Micavibrio aeruginosavorus, have been shown to prey upon over 100 different human pathogens, including some that were drug resistant. This could open the gateway for a predator-based therapeutic treatment.

According to DARPA, there are three questions that must be answered before a feasible predator-based therapeutic system can be developed: The first is whether the pathogen predators could be toxic or dangerous to the host organism. The second is exactly how effective such pathogen predators would be against targeted prey pathogens. Finally, it’s important to know whether pathogens could develop resistance against predation. If these questions can be answered, the road is open for a safer and more effective treatment of bacteria compared to conventional techniques.

DARPA is also working on other programs to help humanity cope with pathogens. One program known as the Technologies for Host Resilience (THoR) project seeks to explore the nature of host immunity by studying immunity and tolerance levels in humans and animals. According to Colonel Matthew Hepburn, “Understanding the fundamental mechanisms of tolerance and transmission could enable a way to reduce mortality from potent threats like antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.”

DARPA is also working on ways to better predict how pathogens can evolve and spread, with the hope of developing better countermeasures against epidemics. In 2014, the agency launched the CHIKV challenge, in which teams of researchers were given data sets related to the spread of the Chikungunya virus in the Americas. The winning team, mathematics professor Joceline Lega and assistant epidemiology professor Heidi Brown from the University of Arizona, were able to consistently “estimate the number, duration and peak of Chikungunya cases that occurred in 2014 and 2015 in the Caribbean.” According to Hepburn, “The goal is to be able to contain an emerging epidemic, in part by being able to predict the evolution of a virus in the same way a weatherman can forecast tomorrow’s weather each day.”

5 Modern Vacuum Tubes

Vacuum Tubes
Vacuum tubes are devices which control electricity by channeling current between two or more electrodes inside a vacuum. Invented in 1904, they were a mainstay of many early electronics, including radios, televisions, radar systems, recording equipment, and computers, until they were replaced by semiconductors, which were smaller and boasted greater efficiency and durability. Vacuum tubes continued to be used in older televisions and monitors until the rise of plasma screens and LED, and a vacuum tube known as a magnetron, once a crucial radar component, is still present in modern microwaves. Vacuum tubes are still used in communications satellites due to their reliability and efficiency in orbit, as well as in military and civilian communications and radar systems.

While most assume that the sun has set on vacuum tubes overall, DARPA believes that they can breathe some new life into the technology through their Innovative Vacuum Electronic Science and Technology (INVEST) program. Vacuum tubes have an advantage over solid-state electronics in being able to operate in temperatures and conditions that would wipe out a semiconductor. Another advantage of vacuum tubes is that they can operate at higher frequencies and shorter wavelengths (in the millimeter wave region) than current devices. This would create radio signals that are “louder” and more difficult to interfere with while also opening up a vast number of new radio frequencies on previously unused parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, which has become crowded in the radio and microwave frequency regions due to the proliferation of commercial communications devices.

The aim of the INVEST program is to overcome the technical limitations of producing vacuum tubes, such as the exotic materials, labor-intensive process, and precision machinery required to build them. The end goal is to develop new methods of manufacturing vacuum tubes, which could hopefully be made using 3-D printers. This would give the military and civilians access to a swath of electromagnetic frequencies that conventional communications technologies cannot access.

4 Jazz Robots

We’ve had artificial intelligence programs that can produce their own music for a few years now. They work by analyzing the output of human composers, noting the similar characteristics, and producing pseudo-original pieces based on this analysis. This is cool, but DARPA has bigger plans. While it’s apparently not too difficult for modern systems to produce artificial classical music or analyze any genre to produce something listenable, DARPA hopes to develop robots that can produce and play legitimate jazz music.

The reason that jazz was chosen was simple: It requires improvisation, which can help scientists teach robots how to think their way through structured problems in order to better react to emergency situations. A team from the University of Arizona has been funded by DARPA to teach artificial intelligence software how to jam to jazz music with the future goal of building robots able to effortlessly play along with human musicians. To achieve this would require the AIs to make spontaneous, real-time decisions based on ever-changing conditions, skills that are equally useful on the battlefield as they are in a jazz club.

Project head Kelland Thomas explains the process:

We’re going to build a database of musical transcription: every Miles Davis solo and every Louis Armstrong solo we’re going to hand-curate. We’re going to develop machine learning techniques to analyze these solos and find deeper relationships between the notes and the harmonies, and that will inform the system—that’ll be the knowledge base.

The development of deep learning algorithms to allow for jazz robots and fast-reacting battlefield AI will not be an easy process, but success could be revolutionary in the quest to create real artificial intelligence able to solve problems and express a form of creativity. At the very least, the man-eating robots devouring the human population in 2030 will have some funky tunes to back them up.

3 XS-1

XS-1 Concept Video

The space shuttle was designed based on the dream of developing reusable spacecraft that could be launched over and over, but the shuttle was only partly recyclable. DARPA has teamed up with aviation company Northrop Grumman, along with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, to create a vertical-launch, horizontal-landing, reusable booster design for DARPA’s XS-1 experimental space plane project. The goal is to develop an unmanned space plane able to launch vertically with minimal infrastructure, accelerate to Mach 10 or beyond to reach low Earth orbit, release a 1,400-kilogram (3,000 lb) payload, and then return to Earth, landing on a standard runway.

DARPA says the program hopes to “demonstrate the technology that can fabricate and fly a reusable aircraft to the edge of space.” The hope is to build a space plane able to reach orbit 10 times in 10 days and reduce the cost of each trip to $5 million, five times less than what it costs today. An earlier 1990s NASA and Boeing project called the X-37B space plane was transferred to DARPA in 2004 and then partially taken over by the US Air Force in 2006. However, the X-37B still requires an Atlas V rocket to get into orbit.

The XS-1 is intended as an improved rocket system that uses hypersonic propulsion to send other spacecraft into space from low Earth orbit. Work on the space plane could lead to the development of new technologies, allowing access to space to become increasingly easy. DARPA has said that it “expects the performers to explore alternative technical approaches from the perspectives of feasibility, performance, system design and development cost and operational cost. They must also assess potential suitability for near-term transition opportunities to military, civil and commercial users.”

2 Beyond GPS

The GPS system for navigation and timing is crucial for modern military operations and civilian life, but it has disadvantages in being reliant on satellites and susceptible to jamming and spoofing. Many military operations are being carried out in areas where GPS is unavailable and inaccessible, and parts of the modern GPS structure rely on the Russian GLONASS system in some areas. DARPA is working on developing on a number of new technologies to break our dependence on GPS.

One program is a simple upgrade to the current system, known as the Quantum-Assisted Sensing and Readout (QuASAR) program. The GPS system depends on atomic clocks, as due to relativity, time advances slightly faster for moving satellites in orbit than it does for stationary clocks on the ground. Atomic clocks are the best current method to synchronize the system and keep it functional and precise. DARPA hopes to improve upon the current system by exploring advances in nanoelectromechanical systems resonators and nitrogen-vacancy centers in diamonds in order to create atomic and pseudo-atomic sensors operating near the standard quantum limit. This would allow for the creation of more portable and robust atomic clocks, making communication systems less susceptible to jamming and GPS positioning more accurate.

DARPA is also hoping to replace the GPS system altogether. A 2015 paper outlines the goals:

The need to be able to operate effectively in areas where GPS is inaccessible, unreliable or potentially denied by adversaries has created a demand for alternative precision timing and navigation capabilities. To address this need, DARPA is investing in radically new technologies that have the potential to deliver GPS-quality position, navigation and timing information for military systems, including novel inertial measurement devices that use cold-atom interferometry; chip-scale self-calibrating gyroscopes, accelerometers and clocks; and pulsed-laser-enabled atomic clocks and microwave sources.

DARPA is exploring non-GPS methods of achieving precise positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) systems to be used on the battlefield. These include inertial systems the size of a penny, pulsed lasers, and using non-conventional points of reference for positioning like commercial satellites, radio and television signals, and timed lightning strikes. The technology developed for a more robust global positioning system may be designed for military applications, but it would likely end up quickly trickling down into civilian communications and navigation systems.

1 Gremlins And Subdrones

Gremlins: Airborne Launch & Recovery of Unmanned Aerial Systems

Drones have become increasingly smaller and more versatile, able to launched by soldiers from the ground. DARPA wants to up the ante with the first drones that can be launched from, and return to, a larger aircraft in flight. They are called gremlins, which DARPA explains as “imaginary, mischievous imps that became the good luck charms of many British pilots during World War II.” These would be designed as cheap and reusable drones able to fill intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles. They would also be used against targets. Gremlins could theoretically swarm an enemy aircraft, jamming communications and radar, discombobulating the pilot, and being too small and numerous to be targeted by missiles or guns.

The Gremlins would need to be designed as reusable but expendable, with “low-cost, limited-life airframes.” According to DARPA program manager Dan Patt: “We wouldn’t be discarding the entire airframe, engine, avionics and payload with every mission, as is done with missiles, but we also wouldn’t have to carry the maintainability and operational cost burdens of today’s reusable systems, which are meant to stay in service for decades.” They would also need a greater degree of artificial intelligence and spatial awareness than is seen in conventional drones in order to launch from and return to the host aircraft and avoid collisions while in operation. It’s not hard to imagine how smaller, smarter, and more maneuverable military drones could soon trickle down into civilian use.

Gremlins aren’t the only advanced drones that DARPA has been developing. Most think of drones as a primarily aerial technology, but DARPA hopes to expand them onto the high seas in the form of robotic sea pods developed under the Upward Falling Payloads program. These deep-sea nodes would be distributed across the ocean floor to be remotely activated when needed. They would then float upward to launch aquatic or aerial assets. They would allow for a distributed system of military assets lying undetected on the seafloor until needed.

Some fear that the increasing militarization of the oceans could have dire consequences. A paper by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research warned that the technology represents a new expansion of warfare into a previously relatively “uncluttered” marine environment, which will require new sets of military rules and norms that are as yet undeveloped:

Many of the world’s conflict flashpoints are on coastal or contested waters. With rising seas, changing weather patterns, and other consequences of global warming, access to previously impassable areas will render the maritime environment an increasingly strategic battlespace for an ever-growing number of States.

Naval robots, clashing geopolitical interests, and unclear international laws and norms on maritime warfare could potentially lead to tragic situations affecting us all.

David Tormsen denies being the botched result of a DARPA experiment. Email him at [email protected].

fact checked by Jamie Frater