When you look at a cockroach, you may see an annoying pest, but the imagineers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) see something beautiful: a perfect six-legged prototype for a vehicle of the future. And DARPA draws inspiration from stranger things than bugs. Anything goes, as long as there's the possibility – even the remote possibility – that it will contribute to some aspect of U.S. military capability. And that covers a surprising amount of ground. According to Donald Ingber, a professor of bioengineering at Harvard Medical School, DARPA "is the only place that understands that true revolutionary leaps require that you not always know where you're going. Eight or nine projects fail, but then one changes the world."
Inside a plain red granite building in Arlington, Virginia, the high-tech, low-profile minds at DARPA aim to make the seemingly unimaginable routine. While the agency acts as a clearinghouse for hundreds of blue-sky projects in development and has a massive budget, DARPA tends to stay under the radar. Yet it's been in business for since 1958: The agency was one-half of Eisenhower's response to the Sputnik challenge. NASA was the other half. Both agencies were given the same urgent brief: Regain our technological lead and keep it.
NASA was making big news launching satellites and manned space flights, while DARPA was quietly creating ARPANET, a decentralized communication system designed to protect the flow of information among scientists. That project is now better known as the Internet.
In fact, DARPA spin-offs are everywhere. The late Michael Dertouzos, of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT, gave DARPA credit for half the major breakthroughs in computing, from the Global Positioning System to the mouse. The agency's wide-ranging imagination is fueled by its shuffling management style. Nearly all the program managers, roughly 150 at present, rotate in and out within about four years, back to the corporations and universities they came from, or to other jobs. Old brains out, new brains in.
And the things those brains dream up! Here are the most impressive technologies to emerge from the agency over the last few decades. The most impressive ones we know about anyway.
The virtual personal assistant
Siri, the iPhone's smart voice-recognition system, was born in a government laboratory. The disembodied voice that plays your music and gets you directions (frequently to the wrong place) was developed as part of a massive DARPA-funded program called Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes. The original idea was to create a digital assistant that would learn over time, adapting the patterns of users and acting – more or less – as Robin to every American solider's Batman. SRI International, the company that kept working on the project after federal funding ran out, eventually building Siri herself, was purchased by Apple in 2010. That vision was never realized, but now we can all call home without using our fingers. Not bad for government work.
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