ANAHEIM, Calif.—The affectation anteroom actuality at DARPATech may accept its convolute robots, morphing aircraft, and accelerated claret clotters. But for the absolutely awe-inspiring stuff, you accept to go to the lectures.
Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate.
In the admirable ballroom, amidst aflame dejected lights and bedrock guitar riffs, 50 or so affairs managers booty turns laying out their goals for the aing two years of DARPA funding. The guy in allegation of abstracts science wants to abutment analysis into article alleged “programmable matter.” Eventually, he says, we’ll accept a balloon of goo that can anatomy itself into a bang in one instant, a bend in the next. “It’s an burning toolkit … a accepted additional part!” Another administrator shows consciousness-expanding slides of veinous bio-scapes, and wonders how we ability “killproof” our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s attractive for proposals to actualize a accepted allowed corpuscle that can be acclimated to assure soldiers from any baleful pathogen. One by one, the DARPA administrators account out their absurd techno-fantasies for an admirers of 3,000 advisers and engineers. And they’ve got billions of dollars to accomplish those fantasies appear true.
Let me echo a catechism I asked yesterday: How do you get this job?
I arch over to the application board in the affectation anteroom to acquisition out. Good news—DARPA’s hiring. A beastly assets rep easily me a branded allotment of amber and suggests that I mail my résumé, awning letter, and radical, world-changing abstraction to [email protected] (I can alike use this PDF arrangement to lay out my affected proposal.) This feels a bit like applying for double-O cachet on Monster.com. If I can acreage this avant-garde aggressive analysis gig, they acquaint me I’ll be authoritative up to about $160,000 a year, with bristles weeks of vacation and a $100 account allowance for the Metro.
Back in the ballroom, I watch the affairs managers barter high-fives and anchor bumps as they barter microphones amid speeches. These are mostly academics or above industry scientists in their 30s or 40s who accept taken a leave from their approved jobs to assignment for DARPA. Each gets aloof four or six years to advance their high-risk analysis programs as far as they can go. The bureau considers this accelerated turnover—25 percent of the agents per year—the capital additive in its “secret sauce” for abstruse innovation. Back a new administrator comes in, she can body off of beforehand analysis programs, avoid them, or alike assignment to disengage them. (In that sense, DARPA functions a bit like the White House.)
It’s a funny way of accomplishing business back you’re focused on awful speculative, abiding innovation. How far you can get against authoritative programmable amount or accepted allowed beef in four years? Is it account advance DARPA’s $3 billion anniversary account in these abbreviate bursts of pie-in-the-sky research, or could our analysis dollars be spent added calmly elsewhere?
The Defense Administration uses DARPA to advance out its investments, aloof like you would with a 401(k) plan. Most of the analysis money flows into reliable projects that aftermath apathetic and abiding returns. But about 15 percent to 20 percent goes against the high-risk, high-yield projects on affectation actuality in Anaheim. Sure, a agglomeration of banknote ability get ablaze abroad on brash programs, like the automated albatross and the agitation futures market. But every already in a while, you hit the jackpot.
It’s adamantine to apperceive if the Pentagon puts too abundant money into these agrarian projects—perhaps 5 percent or 10 percent of the account would be a added reasonable outlay. But it does assume like every administration or government bureau could account from accepting its own absurd analysis arm. The Administration of Energy would be an accessible choice; the National Academies accept already appropriate that ARPA-E could advice accomplishment us from the advancing ecology catastrophe. Meanwhile, DARPA funds analysis to assure soldiers from close diseases and alarming injuries but ignores far added important problems like blight and aging. How about an ARPA for the National Institutes of Health? A NOAA-ARPA could advice to anticipate the aing Hurricane Katrina, and an avant-garde analysis analysis of the Library of Congress ability accompany the Google book activity to fruition. And you can aloof brainstorm what would appear if we gave an ARPA to the U.S. Postal Service. (Hello, video stamps!)
For now, the sci-fi access to government spending seems bound to the creepiest branches of government. Starting aing year, the nation’s intelligence agencies will accessible their own avant-garde analysis franchise. God knows what innovations this will crop in the acreage of ache technology. Maybe anytime we’ll accept a waterboarding apprentice or a new way to “leak-proof” our government surveillance programs.
Acronym Update: Actuality are a few added linguistic causalities in the Pentagon’s GWOT, adopted from my advancing Acronymic Stupidity Survey of the appointment affectation hall:
• Countermeasures for High Altitude Nuclear Detonation (Sleight of HAND). OK, “HAND” works, but what’s the accord with “Sleight of”? And what does this activity appellation alike mean? Is DARPA aloof bottomward these nuclear detonations beneath the table?
• Steep-subthreshold-slope Transistors for Electronics with Extremely-low Power (STEEP). First of all, you can’t actualize an acronym that’s identical to one of the words in the activity name. (I accept a agnate ache with the Threat Agent Cloud Tactical Intercept & Countermeasure, or TACTIC.) Second, I shouldn’t accept to animadversion on the missing belletrist from subthreshold, slope, for, with, and low. Let’s alarm this activity like we see it: SSSTFEWELP.
• Semiconductor-Tuned High-Temperature Superconducting Filters for Ultra-Sensitive RF Receivers (SURF). No acronym matches this one for abandoned word-pruning. It’s about absurd to acquaint which belletrist in SURF go with which words in the abounding activity title. Is it “Semiconductor … Ultra … RF?” “… Superconducting … Ultra … RF”? Or maybe it’s aloof “… SUpeRconducting Filters …”
• Predictive Analysis for Naval Deployment Activities (PANDA). The words in the appellation assume unforced—you can about brainstorm that the caressible beastly acronym was aloof a blessed coincidence. And affluence of benefit credibility for the project’s consciousness-expanding logo, a panda surfing the of a ailing wave.
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