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Five questions for the woman running the Pentagon's mad science research agency

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DARPA. It's an acronym that comes loaded with certain expectations -- a governmental research organization from which emerges some of the most advanced military technology the world has ever seen. While there's truth to that description, it fails to encapsulate all the work DARPA does. Yes, the research agency is developing robots, tactical drones and futuristic weaponry, but it also has its hands in biotechnology, big data analysis and telecommunications research, among other projects, too. And managing all of that fast-paced, groundbreaking work is Dr. Arati Prabhakar, DARPA's director. She's joining us this Saturday, November 8th, onstage at Expand in New York to share (some of) her agency's secrets, but you can read on to get a sneak peek into the United States' most renowned governmental skunkworks, right now.

What is DARPA, and what is your job as director?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is an agency of the Department of Defense with a very specific mission: to make seminal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security. We are explicitly a "projects" agency -- we identify technical capabilities that don't exist today, but that we think could be made real with the right kind of concerted effort; we pick individuals to lead the charge toward achieving those bold and sometimes even implausible goals; and we provide a carefully balanced mix of funding, freedom and insistence upon meeting milestones along the way. If progress does not continue apace or failure appears inevitable, we drop the effort, shift our focus and move on, in the recognition that when one bets on breakthroughs, one will sometimes lose. But of course, when you win, you win big. That's DARPA's mission, and as director it's my job to make sure that the more than half-century of successes that DARPA has catalyzed -- the internet, stealth technology, mobile GPS and a number of revolutionary advances in microelectronics, to name just a few -- continues into the future.

How does DARPA choose areas of research in which to invest?

Sometimes DARPA leadership learns of a challenging technological need or opportunity and the agency brings on board a program manager -- generally someone from academia, industry or a government laboratory -- who has the right stuff to take that effort on. In other cases, existing program managers, who typically do stints of about four years at DARPA, generate ideas from inside and make the case for putting resources into turning those ideas into realties. In relatively rare but important instances, DARPA has responded to immediate needs, as it did when the military needed enhanced network-communications tools in Afghanistan -- or, as has recently been the case, when the nation and the world need quick, game-changing advances in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of Ebola.

Of the agency's current projects, which one will have the most immediate impact on civilians?

One of the exciting things about how DARPA works -- and an inherent quality of the terra incognita that DARPA, by design, explores and works within -- is that no one really knows which efforts will have the most impact or even what, exactly, those impacts will be. We do know, however, that DARPA programs have repeatedly made the nation more secure and stoked the economy by opening up new spaces for commercial as well as military innovators to explore and exploit. As an example, new approaches to immunization and infectious-disease tracking and control now being pursued by DARPA's Biological Technologies Office show great promise not just for protecting our troops, but also for protecting civilians in the United States and abroad. Similarly, groundbreaking research by DARPA-funded performers in the arena of brain-machine interfaces, implantable neural electrodes and mechanical limb prostheses have great potential to reduce the suffering of individuals with limb loss, traumatic brain injuries or other neuropsychiatric conditions, such as PTSD or depression.

Name an area of research that people would be surprised to find within DARPA's portfolio.

How about fighting human trafficking? It turns out that the identification of human trafficking networks is really in large part a big data problem -- something that DARPA is very good at -- and many of the networks involved are linked to other bad-actor networks that pose serious national security threats. DARPA is applying advanced algorithms and other sophisticated tools to everyday information sources such as publicly posted illicit business listings to reveal global currents of abuse and terror, with the goal of radically changing the return-on-investment assumptions of those who would prey upon innocent victims or plot violence against the nation.

Are robots going to take over the world and destroy us?

Did you watch the semifinals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge in December, where the world's most advanced humanoid robots competed in a series of tasks related to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief? The best of them could barely climb a few stairs without toppling over. For the foreseeable future, I'm a lot more worried about humans messing with humans than I am about robots messing with humans.

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