Davey Winder counts down ten amazing innovations that were born at – or inspired by – the legendary US defence agency
Established in 1958 in response to the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, the mission of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has always been the same: to maintain the technological superiority of the US military.
Why are we devoting magazine pages to a military organisation? Because DARPA is one of the most important technology research and development organisations on the planet.
DARPA is one of the most important technology research and development organisations on the planet
In the past 50 years, it has had a major impact on the technological culture we now take for granted.
With the US Department of Defense increasing its research budget from $120 million (£74.6 million) to $188 million (£117 million) for 2012, and a total budget of more than $3 billion (£1.9 billion), we can expect to see plenty more sci-fi-like innovations from DARPA.
In its own words, “DARPA undertakes projects that are finite in duration but that create lasting revolutionary change” – and for once the political spin doctors are right, as our top ten list of brilliant DARPA innovations proves.
1. The internet
Although there are many individuals to whom the development of the net can be attributed, without DARPA it simply wouldn’t exist.
In August 1962, JCR Licklider’s paper entitled “On-Line Man Computer Communication” described a connected global network, and by October he’d been appointed director of the new Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at ARPA, as it was called back then. His brief was to create a network to connect Department of Defense computers at three disparate locations.
It wasn’t until another internet pioneer, Robert Taylor, took over as the head of IPTO and brought in Larry Roberts from MIT that work on building the network began.
The first host-to-host connection between PCs on the new Arpanet was established at 10.30pm on 29 October 1969, creating the world’s first fully operational packet-switching network. By December, a four-node network was up and running, the first email was sent across it in 1972, and people started referring to it as the internet in 1973.
2. Windows, the World Wide Web and videoconferencing
You may think we’ve lost the plot now, since we all know Microsoft invented Windows (or should that be Apple?) and Tim Berners-Lee was the genius behind the web – but DARPA had a hand in both, courtesy of NLS.
The oN-Line System was the brainchild of PC mouse inventor Douglas Engelbart, who in 1961 proposed to the director of information sciences of the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research to “develop a comprehensive framework for augmenting human intellect”.
NLS developments also included the first practical use of hypertext linking, which proved the concept could work in the real world
Engelbart’s work on NLS, later known as the Augment System, included the first use of onscreen windowing with a mouse – without which there couldn’t have been any GUI or Microsoft Windows. NLS developments also included the first practical use of hypertext linking, which proved the concept could work in the real world, and without which the World Wide Web wouldn’t have been invented either.
When Engelbart demonstrated NLS to the public in 1969, he combined leased telephone lines, a PC and a 22ft-high screen with video inserts courtesy of a projector, to allow his team back at the labs to join in the demo. In effect, this was the birth of online videoconferencing. Who funded this research? DARPA, along with the US Air Force and NASA.
3. Google Maps
DARPA beat Google to the Street View thing, complete with cameras on car roofs, by almost 30 years. In the summer of 1979, a group of MIT Architecture Machine Group students funded by DARPA demonstrated the Aspen Movie Map on videodisc.
Not only did the interactive map let users travel through the Colorado city and even enter selected buildings virtually, it also included options to time travel to see what the historic buildings looked like in the past.
Then there was that Google-alike video car, with four gyroscopically stabilised 16mm cameras mounted as an array, capturing images every 10ft; the measurement of that capture rate distance was via a bicycle wheel being towed behind the car. The resulting images, along with other data, were then transformed into a 3D multimedia representation of the area.
Why would DARPA want to fund such research? It seems to have stemmed from the Entebbe Airport incident, when Israeli special services soldiers stormed an aeroplane at the Ugandan airport to rescue hostages, and it emerged they had trained for the mission using a replica of the airport itself.
The notion of using interactive movie maps in order to familiarise soldiers with territory for missions was born, as was the Aspen Movie Map project.
The Siri voice-recognition system embedded in the latest iPhone was born out of DARPA research.
Apple acquired Siri, the company and the technology it had developed, in 2010. Siri was founded in 2007, but the original research upon which the technology was built – Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (CALO) – was funded by DARPA in order to develop better tools for soldiers in the field.
Along with the Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL) program, DARPA has been researching the concept of voice recognition combined with artificial intelligence since 2003.
Inspired by the Latin “calonis”, or soldier’s servant, the CALO project ended in 2008, having gone a long way towards reaching the aim of building a cognitive assistant that learns from experience.
It’s been replaced by BOLT, or the Broad Operational Language Translation program. BOLT aims to take CALO to the next level, from being a bridge between man and machine to a bridge between people themselves.
Its goal is to provide translation of foreign languages, extract contextual information from those translations, and by doing so enable soldiers in the field to maintain fluent bilingual communication without previous knowledge of the language.
BOLT isn’t only about spoken language; it will also allow accurate and contextual translation from SMS and email.
5. Unix (and the cloud)
Before Unix – without which there would be no OS X or iOS, no Android and, of course, no Linux – there was Multics.
The Multiplexed Information and Computing Service was a project heavily funded by DARPA in order to develop an “information utility” that could provide computer services 24/7.
Think a modular system, where banks of components within the design – such as processors, memory, comms and so on – could operate independently without tying up the service as a whole.
Throw in resilience to attack and the ability to have various classifications of data (top secret all the way down to unclassified) co-existing on the same system without being accessible by users without necessary clearance, and you have a clue as to the DARPA interest.
The super-strength security aspect was put on the back burner by the time Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie became involved in 1969, and Peter Neumann proposed the name Unix for the system they started working on.
So where does cloud computing come into all this? Well, Multics also saw the birth of the “timeshared mainframe” through the work of Bell Labs, GE and MIT. The sharing of resources from a remote super-server through local dumb terminals is as good a description of a basic cloud infrastructure as we’ve heard.
There are two technologies developed by DARPA that the world couldn’t function without today.
One is the internet, and the other is GPS; if either were to be switched off, everything from global commerce to national defence systems would be compromised to the point of potential collapse.
The Global Positioning System project dates back to 1973 and was originally very much a military system, funded and created by the US Department of Defense. However, the concept dates back even further to the very early days of DARPA itself.
Following the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, two US physicists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) discovered that by using radio transmissions and the Doppler effect (the change in frequency of a wave for an observer moving relative to the source of the wave) they could pinpoint the precise location of the Sputnik satellite.
DARPA wanted to use this to help the US Navy with Polaris missile research, which required it to know the precise location of the submarine launching the nukes.
The TRANSIT system, later known as NAVSAT, was the first operational satellite navigation system and went live in 1964, continuing until eventually being decommissioned two years after GPS went fully operational in 1994.
7. Urban Photonic Sandtable Display
Forget the touchscreen on steroids Tom Cruise manipulated in Minority Report, if you want real-life fantastical displays look no further than the Urban Photonic Sandtable Display (UPSD), which DARPA demonstrated to an astonished media last year.
Developed for the battlefield, specifically for mission-planning scenarios, the Sandtable presents the military with a large-format interactive 3D display. Okay, nothing stunning there in this day of 3D televisions in Currys, but the Sandtable is no ordinary display.
It uses an advanced 3D holographic technology to dynamically create a large (up to 6ft diagonal) full colour, fully 360-degree display of any terrain in real-time; and the display can be viewed by up to 20 people without the use of special glasses.
The image itself is interactive, allowing for full manipulation – such as freezing, rotation and zooming – and enables a visual depth capability of 12in, which is truly remarkable when you consider that current commercial 3D technology provides only three or four inches of visual depth under ideal lighting conditions.
Oh, and troops get a 2D print-out of the display to use as hard-copy mission maps for good measure. It may take a while before you get to use this attached to your PC, but the history of DARPA project commercialisation suggests it will happen eventually.
8. The Lighthouse Project
Arbor Networks is well known as a leading security company specialising in the field of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack prevention.
What is less well known is the fact that Arbor Networks itself was born out of a DARPA research project: the Lighthouse Project, which Arbor Networks’ co-founders worked on at the University of Michigan and then used as the technological foundation for the company itself.
Back in 1999, DDoS attacks were the next big thing, hitting online betting shops and mission-critical military systems alike.
The Lighthouse Project research led directly to the discovery of highly scalable, service provider-class solutions that enabled the rapid detection, backtracking and mitigation of these attacks.
First demonstrated in the summer of 2000, the anomaly detection system showed how the gap between spotting the start of a DDoS attack and resolving it could be successfully closed.
9. Internet anonymity
Privacy, anonymity and government agencies aren’t natural bedfellows, but bear with us. Those who care about online privacy will probably have heard of the Tor privacy service, which, when used in conjunction with the Tor private browser, offers possibly the most anonymous method of being on the internet.
The core principle behind Tor – namely, “onion routing” – was originally funded by the US Office of Naval Research in 1995, and the development of the technology was helped along by DARPA in 1997. Three years later, the Tor network emerged as a direct result of the earlier DARPA-funded work.
So, what is an onion network? It involves adding a layer of encryption for each router node along the path that your data travels, each encryption layer being peeled back one at a time by routers along the way.
Each router unpeels a single layer to get instructions on where to send the data packets next, but can’t see where the data packets have come from. None of these nodes knows the origin of those packets, nor the ultimate destination, nor does it have access to the contents of your data transfer.
10. The world’s fastest aeroplane
It would be remiss to complete a military research retrospective without covering a battlefield technology. Enter the stealth fighter. Actually, stealth fighters, plural, as DARPA has funded and developed a whole range of these all-but-invisible aircraft.
Perhaps the most infamous is the F-117, which was used to impressive effect during the Desert Storm operation in 1991, when it flew 1,271 missions without loss, dropping 2,000 tons of ordinance with an 80% hit rate.
Stealth development started in the early 1970s and the “HAVE BLUE” radar-evading aircraft first flew in 1977. From this technology DARPA developed the Falcon HTV-2 unmanned glider, with an objective of being able to deliver a bomb payload to any target, anywhere on the planet, in less than an hour.
To meet this objective the aircraft has to be capable of amazing speeds, and the Falcon HTV-2 can fly at 20 times the speed of sound, or 14,000 miles per hour.
Unfortunately, while trying to set a new world record for flight during testing last year, DARPA lost the aircraft when it crashed into the ocean. However, it threatens to make a transatlantic journey akin to a bus ride once DARPA gets it to work.
Ubiquitous High Performance Computing (UHPC), or exaflop computing, will spit out the most demanding of PC Pro benchmarks in a heartbeat. Well, it will if DARPA can invent it. The good news is it has initiated the Ubiquitous High Performance Computing program to find out.
It’s no small task either, when you consider that Intel’s Knights Corner processor, the fastest on the planet right now, can only reach processing speeds of a mere teraflop (one million million floating-point operations per second).
One exaflop is the equivalent of ten followed by 18 zeroes (1018), giving you an indication of DARPA’s ambition. Even if you allow for Moore’s law, which states that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles every 18 months or so, it’s a big ask.
One exaflop is the equivalent of ten followed by 18 zeroes (1018), giving you an indication of DARPA’s ambition
But DARPA isn’t alone in attempting to answer it. The Indian Space Research Organisation, together with the Indian Institute of Science, is also in the race to develop an exaflop machine, insisting a prototype will be ready by 2017, a year before the DARPA prototype is expected.
DARPA may have the upper hand, though, with a determination to provide a computer that’s at least 50 times more energy efficient than anything we have now. If the DARPA funding – and the boffins at Intel, Nvidia and MIT – results in the necessary hardware, expect a fundamental sea change in what computers can do by the end of the decade.