Forty years ago, a group of researchers with military money set out to test the wacky idea of making computers talk to one another in a new way, using digital information packets that could be traded among multiple machines rather than telephonic, point-to-point circuit relays. The project, called ARPANET, went on to fundamentally change life on Earth under its more common name, the Internet.
Today, the agency that bankrolled the Internet is called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which boasts a rising budget of nearly $3 billion split across 250 programs. They all have national security implications but, like the Internet, much of what DARPA funds can be commercialized, spread, and potentially change civilian life in big ways that its originators didn't conceive.
What's DARPA working on lately that that could be Internet big? Last week at the Atlantic Council, DARPA director Arati Prabhakar declined to name names. Like a good mutual fund manager, she said that her job was to "manage risk through diversity" in her portfolio. But the technologies that she highlighted in her recent testimony (PDF) to the Senate Appropriations Committee look like a list of insider favorites. Many have received much less public attention than DARPA's flashier robot initiatives.
Here are four of DARPA's potential next big things:
1. Atomic GPS
The Global Positioning System, or GPS, which DARPA had an important but limited role in developing, is a great tool but maintaining it as a satellite system is increasingly costly. A modern GPS satellite can run into the range of $223 million, which is one reason why the Air Force recently scaled back its procurement.
DARPA doesn't have an explicit program to replace GPS, but the DARPA-funded chip-scale combinatorial atomic navigation, or C-SCAN, and Quantum Assisted Sensing, or QuASAR, initiatives explore a field of research with big relevance here: the use of atomic physics for much better sensing. If you can measure or understand how the Earth's magnetic field acceleration and position is effecting individual atoms (reduced in temperature), you can navigate without a satellite. In fact, you can achieve geo-location awareness that could be 1,000 times more accurate than any system currently in existence, say researchers.
That means having more capable and cheaper devices with geo-location capability, with the potential to improve everything from self-driving cars and those anticipated pizza delivery drones.
The British military is investing millions of pounds in a similar technology. Researchers associated with the project forecast that they will have a prototype ready within five years.
The upshot for quantum navigation for any military is obvious. It arms them with better and more reliable situational awareness for soldiers and equipment and better flying for missiles. Perhaps, more importantly, a drone with a quantum compass wouldn't require satellite navigation, which would make it much easier to fly and less hackable.
The big benefit for everybody else? Future devices that understand where they are in relation to one another and their physical world won't need to rely on an expensive satellite infrastructure to work. That means having more capable and cheaper devices with geo-location capability, with the potential to improve everything from real-time, location-based searches to self-driving cars and those anticipated pizza delivery drones.
The most important civilian use for quantum GPS could be privacy. Your phone won't have to get signals from space anymore to tell you where you are. It would know with atomic certainty. That could make your phone less hackable and, perhaps, allow you to keep more information out of the hands of your carrier and the NSA.
2. Terehertz Frequency Electronics and Meta-materials
The area of the electromagnetic spectrum between microwave, which we use for cell phones, and infrared, is the Terehertz range. Today, it's a ghost town, but if scientists can figure out how to harness it, we could open up a vast frontier of devices of that don't compete against others for spectrum access. That would be a strategic advantage in a time when more military devices use the same electromagnetic spectrum space.
Research into THz electronics has applications in the construction of so-called meta-materials, which would lend themselves to use in cloaking for jets and equipment and even, perhaps, invisibility.
On the civilian side, because THz radiation, unlike X-ray radiation, is non-invasive, metamaterial smart clothes made with small THz sensors would allow for far faster and more precise detection of chemical changes in the body, which could indicate changes in health states. There's the future doctor in your pocket.
3. A Virus Shield for the Internet of Things
CISCO systems has forecast 50 billion interconnected devices will inhabit the world by the year 2020, or everything from appliances to streets, pipes and utilities through supervisory command and control systems. All of that physical and digital interconnection is now known as the Internet of Things.
The High Assurance Cyber Military Systems program, or HACMS, which DARPA announced in 2012, is trying to patch the security vulnerabilities that could pervade the Internet of Things. The agency wants the to make sure that military vehicles, medical equipment and, yes, even drones can't be hacked into from the outside. In the future, some of the software tools that emerge from the HACMS program could be what keeps the civilian Internet of Things operating safely. This breakthrough won't be as conspicuous as the Internet itself. But you will know its influence by what does not happen because of it – namely, a deadly industrial accident resulting from a catastrophic cyber-security breach. (See: Stuxnet.)
Without better security, many experts believe the Internet of things will never reach it's full potential. In a recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project about the future of physical and digital interconnection, Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, who was instrumental in the success of ARPANET, said that in order for the Internet of things to really revolutionize the way we live it must be secure.
"Barriers to the Internet of Things include failure to achieve sufficient standardization and security," he said. HACMS could provide the seeds for future security protocols, allowing the Internet of things to get off the ground.
4. Rapid Threat Assessment
The Rapid Threat Assessment, or RTA, program wants to speed up by orders of magnitude how quickly researchers can figure out how diseases or agents work to kill humans. Instead of months or years, DARPA wants to enable researchers to "within 30 days of exposure to a human cell, map the complete molecular mechanism through which a threat agent alters cellular processes," Prabhakar said in her testimony. "This would give researchers the framework with which to develop medical countermeasures and mitigate threats."
How is that useful right now? In the short term, this is another research area notable primarily for what doesn't happen after it hits, namely pandemics. It took years and a lot of money to figure out that H5N1 bird flu became much more contagious with the presence of an amino acid in a specific position.. That's what enabled it to live in mammalian lungs and, thus, potentially be spread by humans via coughing and sneezing. Knowing this secret earlier would have prevented a great deal of death.
In the decades ahead, the biggest contribution of the program may be fundamental changes in future drug discovery. "If successful, RTA could shift the cost-benefit trade space of using chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces and could also apply to drug development to combat emerging diseases," Prabhakar said.
Before any of these four reach Internet-level success, DARPA faces a big challenge despite it's continued popularity, in that they remain a government agency at a time when change moves faster than the U.S. government understands.
"We move at a pace measured in decades in an environment that changes every year," Prabhaka said, at the Atlantic Council. In terms of the emerging technology she's most concerned about, it's the unknown unknowns, the U.S. military's "ability to handle this vast changing landscape."
The agency that helped to bring about the Internet, Siri and GPS will always enjoy a certain cache, warranted or not. But the world moves faster than even DARPA can keep up. Perhaps the most important thing that DARPA can create in the years ahead is manageable expectations.