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.
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.
than a few said it was the best meeting they’d ever attended.
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.
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
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
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.
the second milestone, scientists from DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory program
have found that targeted electrical brain stimulation can improve memory.
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.
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 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
Because GEO is a
stable environment for machines -- but hostile for people because of high
radiation levels -- DARPA thinks the key technology there is space robotics.
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.
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 construction.
“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.”
presenter was Tom Dietterich, professor of computer science at Oregon State
University and president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial
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
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,
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.
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 people.”
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
“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?”
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
Are We Alone?
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)