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Interview: Arati Prabhakar, Director, US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Jun. 6, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
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Arati Prabhakar is director of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (Getty Images for National Clean Energy Summit)
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Since it was founded in 1958, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has evolved as one of history’s most formidable engines of defense — and commercial — innovation. It had a hand in developing microelectronics, stealth, precision weapons, cloud computing, communications, the Internet, biometrics and far more that ensured the US military remained ahead of allies and enemies alike. And once commercialized, these technologies have revolutionized the world.

Over the decades, DARPA directors have played a special role in shaping the Pentagon’s future. And that role has taken on greater urgency as DoD turns to innovation to remain in the lead in the face of deep budget cuts. Arati Prabhakar is working closely with Pentagon leaders to map a leap-ahead future.

She argues, however, that key to getting to that future is moving away from big, complex systems that dominate DoD’s budget, which not only take decades to develop but are hard to modify.

The founding director of DARPA’s microelectronics unit, Prabhakar returned to the agency as its director nearly two years ago, vowing to allow program managers drive innovation from the ground up.

Q. What are the most important disruptive technology systems and ideas that DARPA is working on?

A. Disruptive technologies is where we live. The revolution that’s playing out today is the information revolution. We see it across every aspect of national security. And that is a series of disruptions.

The next one that is happening now is about information at massive scale. So that’s one area where we’re driving cybersecurity and tools to be able to handle and get insight out of this massive volume of data.

A secondary that I think will be a longer-term period before we really get the full effects is fundamentally rethinking military systems. How do we get beyond the costs and the inflexibility that is starting to render these systems ineffective for the threats we’re going to be facing? We have some powerful new approaches there that I think will have extremely beneficial effects, but it’s going to take quite a while because of the structural issues to make those changes happen.

And then if you want to start thinking about the farther future, in the research base today we see things happening where biology is intersecting with engineering, and here we’re starting to be able to develop the technologies to outpace the spread of infectious disease and to understand and even harness how the brain works.

Q. The disruptive piece of it, specifically in regards to the large complex system: You said that’s one of the biggest challenges that we face and one of the biggest threats to national security. What do you mean by that?

A. We’ve had a long history in the US of using our deep pockets as a competitive advantage on the battlefield, and it has been a very effective strategy. Now it’s starting to shoot us in the foot. And you can see it today in the hard choices that the Pentagon is having to make about which systems we continue and which we discontinue, how many of any particular system can we afford to buy. Those choices translate ultimately to national security capability. So I think we’re seeing that direct link now between cost and our future capabilities.

That’s the problem that I think we have to deal with head on. It has many, many factors. A piece that DARPA’s working on is the technology bases. Are there new technologies and architectures that would allow us to change the cost and the flexibility of those systems and make them more powerful for the next generation?

Q. What’s one of the best approaches to solve that problem?

A. What’s now becoming possible is driven by a host of technologies. It’s this next generation of micro-electronics and microsystems that shrink our physical technologies. It’s the algorithms and the software and the informa­tion systems. We know how powerful they are. So far we’ve used those advances to cram more and more capability onto major deeply integrated platforms.

Q. Extremely expensive platforms.

A. Very capable but very costly and not very flexible, and the question now is can we use those same underlying technologies, but as they continue to advance can we use them to open up a new approach that’s distributed cooperative effects. It creates a lot more complexity. It shifts it away from platform complexity to a systems complexity. But we think if we can harness that complexity, it can be much more powerful, more cost-effective.

Q. The post-World War II defense industry has been a net generator of technology that shaped everybody’s commercial lives. But increasingly we’re going back to where the commercial world develops technologies that are then adapted for the defense world. This is happening at a time when technology has proliferated around the world. What are the advantages and challenges of that?

A. I see a number of very important implications for DARPA. One is, given the power of commercial available technologies, we see a lot of other actors around the world being able to move very quickly and turn advanced semiconductor components, networking technologies, into very powerful military capabilities. We need to make sure that we can do that at least as fast, if not faster, and much more effectively than others do. Today we’re actually arguably much slower because of the complexity of the systems that we have. So that becomes a factor for what we do.

At the same time, I think there continues to be a very important role for us to do something we’ve done through 56 years, which is to look at the research landscape, to find those places where research might be leading into new technology capabilities, and to make those early investments to show what might be possible. Sometimes the answer is that we see that technological possibility, but actually it’s going to come to life because of commercial applications driven by private investment, and then we’re going to harvest it again for DoD.

Q. You have a very small staff of 200 people, and 100 are program managers. Do you have the staff to really stay on top of fast-paced global technology developments?

A. We’ve been able to do this job so well for so many decades because of that model, to have a small staff but a staff that rotates very frequently. So our 100 program managers typically come out of the technology community that drives the edges of technology forward, and the fact that the people we have in the agency are always bringing those fresh ideas in is absolutely core to our operating model. They get phenomenal amplification because they’re able to work outside of our walls with this immense, incredibly innovative creative community.

Q. The administration is asking for $3 billion for your budget in 2015. That’s a $200 million increase from where DARPA was last year, but you also sustained some very deep budget hits between 2009 and 2013, in part with a big sequestration hit.

A. That’s right.

Q. Your budget is in consideration on the Hill. How important is it that you get that amount of money for the mission you have to do, or if you do have a reduction, can you still deliver?

A. DARPA’s budget [had a] very gradual decline between 2009 and 2013 but a decline that aggregated to a 20 percent reduction in real terms in our budget. The last piece of that was 8 percent due to sequestration in 2013. Fortunately, we did start a very gradual restoration in 2014, the president’s budget request for fiscal ’15 at $2.9 billion, again, just as it continues to erase that sequestration impact, a little bit of a restoration.

Not one moment was this a death blow because we still have had very substantial resources. We’ve been very focused on how we get the most value out of those investments, and I think DARPA has done a great job with that. But a 20 percent erosion does have real consequences. We have had to reduce some of our systems demonstration projects, which are key to showing some of these very disruptive capabilities and real flight tests and real ground demonstrations out of the lab, meaningful demonstrations. That’s been an area that we’re starting to restore now as the budget recovers, we hope.

And also I think we pulled our horns in a little bit in terms of the very far out research with the really new opportunities. Those are the areas that we want to make sure that we reinforce going forward.

Q. How do you go about identifying something that’s a disruptive technology to invest in in the first place?

A. DARPA’s budget is invested across a collection of about 250 programs, a portfolio that is deliberately diversified. Every program that we invest in is all about national security impact, but we know that we need to be investing in some things that can have their impact in the shorter term, and in things that may take years or in some cases even decades but that can really change the game in some fundamental ways.

Some things that we’re doing today in information technology [really is] because that information revolution is unfolding already, because the nature of the product sometimes, the software, sometimes is easier to transition. There are places where a transition can be very quick. It can be months. It can be a matter of sending someone a program and, boom, impact actually can occur.

But other things that we’re doing — biology research is a great example — some of the seeds that we’re planting there in brain function research are going to lead to deep insights, early practical applications, but really big impact. We’re just opening a door to possibilities that could be very dramatic.

By Vago Muradian in Washington.

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