DARPA director speaks on the role of technology


Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, spoke to students and faculty in a presentation titled “Next: Breakthrough Technologies for National Security” at the Viterbi School of Engineering Wednesday afternoon.

DARPA is an agency of the United States Department of Defense that is primarily focused on scientific research and technological advancement. The agency conducts research in fields such as math, science and medicine, and develops technology for the United States military.

Before becoming director of DARPA in June 2012, Prabhakar founded the agency’s Microelectronics Technology Office and served as the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology under President Bill Clinton. Prabhakar also worked with startup tech companies as a partner with venture capital firm U.S. Venture Partners.

Prabhakar began her presentation by providing a brief history of the agency. She explained what role DARPA was intended to fill in United States national security.

Originally called the Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA was founded in 1958. The agency was created to fill the need for scientific advancement and technological progress in the aftermath of the Russian launch of Sputnik.

“When you talk to our colleagues in the Army and the Navy and the Air Force and the Marine Corps, they know us as the place from which technology emerged,” Prabhakar said. “They know us as the place where infrared night-vision technology, communications technology, positioning technology, emerged.”

The majority of Prabhakar’s talk, however, was focused on the future. She spoke about some of DARPA’s current goals and how the agency responds to the concerns raised by new technology.

According to Prabhakar, one of DARPA’s main areas of focus is space and satellite technology. These technologies are not only important in day-to-day civilian life, but in war zones and military activity as well.

“We are phenomenally dependent on space,” Prabhakar said, citing satellite usage in technologies such as GPS, communication and imaging. “We simply cannot fight without the greatest advantage that we have.”

Biological technologies were another important part of DARPA’s current work, Prabahakr said. She showed the audience a few projects that are currently being developed that would advance the speed of medicine. Engineered bio-organisms that can help treat disease and allow for more efficient diagnosis technology were among the projects mentioned.

Prabhakar also stated that DARPA was conducting research on brain function in order to learn more about                                                           little-understood biological processes. She shared a video of a quadriplegic woman who, through electric ports connected to her brain, was able to control a robotic arm as easily as a healthy person controlling his or her own arm.

“That for me was the real ‘Aha!’ moment,” Prabhakar said. “A door opened. We’re learning fundamental things about how the brain interacts with the physical world. It’s easy to imagine a future where we start harvesting that kind of information to start changing how humans interact with more complex systems.”

The ethical implications of new technology and the potential consequences of scientific advancement are also a concern of DARPA, Prabhakar said.

“Today’s national security threat is not just that kind of nation-state threat,” she said. “Because of easily available capital and technology, we have to be cognizant of the wide range of threats. It’s sobering to think about how these technologies might be used.”

She concluded her presentation by saying it is DARPA’s responsibility to investigate the new technologies and propose important ethical questions, but society will be the one to provide the final answers.

“I don’t want to live in a society where a bunch of technologists in the national security business make up answers to these deeply societal questions,” Prabhakar said. “Our role [as a society] is to raise the issue, engage the people and show them what the technology can and can’t do.”

  • David Pepin

    Sounds all well and good, coming from a government employee… spouting platitudes about the ethical use of technology. So, we know where the money comes from to push the limits of technology. And we know who is doing the pushing… DARPA. But who is going to push the effort to make sure that society takes note of and engages in deciding how it wants that new technology used BEFORE it is brought to market? It’s nice to stand behind a podium and say “…society will be the one to provide the final answers.” The problem is, no one is responsible for marshaling society towards developing those answers… certainly not with the vigor and speed with which DARPA is pushing technology’s limits.