Projects undertaken by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency may have some immediate applications, but what program managers there really look to do is blow open new sets of opportunities from deep research, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said here yesterday.
Speaking to a large audience at the Defense One Summit and to viewers online, the electrical engineer with a doctorate in applied physics described DARPA-funded work underway to help the warfighter in information technology and brain function.
“Our focus is always breakthrough technologies for national security. We want to show that radically new things are going to be possible,” Prabhakar told interviewer Barbara Starr of CNN.
“I also think this is a great example of much broader societal issues that come up when you’re working at the forefront of these kinds of technologies,” the director said, naming synthetic biology, new materials and privacy concerns related to “big data” as DARPA research topics deserving of public debate.
For the warfighter on the ground today, DARPA research in information technology is more about using the kinds of capabilities readily available in civilian apps and smartphones in the combat theater, Prabhakar said. When soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan are trying to understand the local environment, she noted, they do that largely with paper maps.
“Yes, we have a lot of information about what’s going on,” Prabhakar said, “but it’s not down in the hands of the soldier.”
In the last few years DARPA initiated a program called Transformative Apps that dealt with some of the hard security and other challenges of using Android smartphone technology in theater, Prabhakar said.
“What we did essentially,” she explained, “was get these Android devices in the hands of soldiers who were going out on patrols every single day and gave them the ability to carry a lot of map data to know where they were, track what was going on in the local community, and share that information with each other.”
But DARPA went further, the director added.
“We’ve now got that ability in theater, so soldiers come back and say, ‘This really worked, I need this app. But what would be great would be this next capability.’ And our developers are working with them in real time to develop those new apps, so our capability keeps growing,” Prabhakar said.
Soldiers tell DARPA that what would be useful for the next generation of capabilities are things like getting records of what other foot patrols find as they do their work and combining that information into a data picture, she said.
“Or,” Prabhakar imitates a soldier explaining his or her needs: ‘I talked to this farmer, and I found out what crops he was growing and I want to be able to track that. But now I have information I know I can hand off to the next patrol that’s coming in for the next period of time.’ Those were the kinds of very pragmatic things that were extremely helpful once they got this basic tool,” she explained.
At the other end of the research spectrum, for the warfighter on the ground tomorrow and beyond, DARPA is funding research that combines its work in prosthetics and its research into brain function.
“I think we’re just at the beginning of a very long and interesting journey,” Prabhakar said. “There has been such an interesting set of advances in neuroscience in the last few years, and DARPA has started putting some of those advances to work.”
Some of the work is driven by DARPA program manager and physician Dr. Geoffrey Ling, an Army colonel who retired last year and who has been working for several years with DARPA on prosthetics for wounded veterans, the director said.
“Geoff returned from theater convinced that we had to find a way to advance prosthetics capabilities for our wounded veterans,” Prabhakar explained. Ling was trained as a neurointerventionist, she added, a surgical specialty in which doctors treat conditions and diseases such as cerebral aneurysms, head and neck tumors and strokes.
“To him, the starting point was to understand the brain,” she said. “He launched a program that did two different things we’re now bringing together. One was to develop a very sophisticated prosthetic arm. The other was to do the animal work to understand where the signaling for motor control happens in the brain and how we can start using those signals to control the world around us.”
Based on that work DARPA began human trials in the last year. One of the earliest patients was a longtime quadriplegic named Jan, Prabhakar said, describing how the woman volunteered to have a small array implanted on the surface of her brain.
At the conference, the director showed a video in which Jan, five months after surgery, used ports on the top of her head from which electrical signals are taken to use her thoughts to control a robotic arm linked to a computer.
In the video, Jan showed an amazed reporter that she could easily move the arm left and right, up and down, then shake his hand and even give him a fist bump as she sat smiling but motionless on the bed.
“Can you imagine,” Prabhakar asked the audience, “if we can do that kind of control of prosthetics — very natural, graceful control, not one finger at a time, but the way we move our limbs today? Then, as you start thinking about what we’re learning, think about how we might build all kinds of complex systems because of what we understand about how the human brain interacts with them.”
Asked about applications of such technology beyond restoring lost limbs, the DARPA director recalled being on a Virginia-class submarine and watching its operation, which involved multiple large screens and interactive touch displays.
“Imagine if we could move beyond that in the future, without having ports on top of your head, but perhaps wirelessly going directly from brain signal to a very sophisticated level of control. Rather than pushing buttons on a screen or moving levers, being able to orchestrate a very complex system,” Prabhakar said.
“That is the door that is opened by this kind of research,” she added, “and frankly, it’s both exhilarating and terrifying.”
Still, she said, DARPA must continue to push the frontiers of
“That is literally our day job and our core mission,” she said. “We also try very hard to raise these broader ethical issues and societal issues, because well beyond the period of our research, society has some important choices to make.”