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Army of Extreme Thinkers

The brilliant successes of DARPA, the Defense Department's advanced research agency, are matched only by its long list of bizarre failures.

August 14, 2003|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

Over the past half-century, an obscure Pentagon group, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been behind some of the world's most revolutionary inventions -- the Internet, the global positioning system, stealth technology and the computer mouse, to name a few.

It's an impressive record of success offset only by the fact that DARPA has also come up with some of the most boneheaded ideas ever to spring from the government.

Over the years, millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on a variety of projects, from telepathic spies and jungle-tromping robotic elephants to its most recent fiasco -- FutureMAP, an online futures market designed to predict assassinations and bombings by encouraging investor speculation in such crimes.

"Morally repugnant," said Yale University economist Robert Shiller.

A "sick idea," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

"Unbelievably stupid," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).

It's the type of criticism that DARPA is not only used to, but also lavishes on itself. "When we fail, we fail big," said former DARPA Director Charles Herzfeld, summing up the agency research disasters in an official 1975 history of DARPA.

Such is life on the absolute bleeding edge of technology.

DARPA has always shunned conventionality, using "radicalism" as its watchword. It sniffs out tantalizing, often fantastic, ideas, then casts off bureaucratic shackles to leap forward.

As the military agency charged with developing innovative, far-reaching research, it has asked brilliant minds to court failure for a chance at greatness.

Michael Dertouzos, the late director of the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, credited DARPA-supported work with half of the major innovations in computing, including breakthroughs in microcircuits and data-management systems.

"The mantra was 'high risk, high payoff,' " said Leonard Kleinrock, a UCLA computer scientist who was among an elite group of scientists recruited in the late 1960s to develop the nascent Internet. "A long leash, a lot of funding, a lot of support."

But the price of success has been an equally impressive record of scientific kookiness. And now, in a darker era of amorphous terrorist threats, even some of its staunchest supporters are feeling a twinge of anxiety over such projects as the FutureMAP terrorism market.

"These things seem truly ominous," said Gary Chapman, director of the 21st Century Project, a science policy research program at the University of Texas. "DARPA has become a scary sandbox for people whose objectives many Americans disagree with."

DARPA was founded in February 1958, four months after the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite stunned the U.S. with the menacing prospect of being left behind scientifically.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (renamed DARPA in 1972) was formed to make basic research a key element of national security. Roy W. Johnson, a handsome, blunt and hard-driving vice president at aerospace contractor General Electric Co., was picked as ARPA's first director.

Johnson set up the agency to find experts in physics, information technology, materials science and other fields, then showered them with funds and freedom. ARPA initially focused on rocketry, space exploration, ballistic missile defense and nuclear test detection, then broadened its range.

Eschewing sluggish peer review of grant proposals, ARPA relied on enterprising program officers, many drawn from academia and industry, who selected projects based on hunches about the future.

"In the 1960s you could do really any damn thing you wanted, as long as it wasn't against the law or immoral," said Herzfeld, who directed ARPA from 1965 to 1967.

The agency was so open to ideas that in 1958 Johnson recommended paying an 11-year-old boy who wrote in with suggestions on how to build a space station. The letter mirrored military plans so closely that a security investigation was also ordered, according to the DARPA history.

One legendary manager was the late J.C.R. Licklider, an acoustical engineer and early mainframe computer expert. In 1962, then-ARPA Director Jack Ruina recruited "Lick" after reading his pioneering article, "Man Computer Symbiosis," in an engineering journal -- a prescient vision of real-time, interactive computing.

Licklider disdained red tape, meetings and paperwork. He freed scientists to move as rapidly as possible toward his dream, the "Intergalactic Network." His wild idea became the Internet after years of DARPA-funded research.

Early agency leaders would describe projects "in terms of what they would do for the country, not just for the military," said Robert Taylor, a former program manager and a creator of the Internet.

Two DARPA technologies -- very large-scale integrated circuits, or VLSI, and graphic-design software -- were originally developed, in part, to manage daunting controls faced by military pilots who made split-second decisions in advanced jets.

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