YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Risks and Rewards of Dreaming Big

August 19, 2003

Your Aug. 14 article about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency touched a lot of memories. I have known the agency since it began nearly 50 years ago. What is missing in the article is the remarkable correlation between the success rate of the agency and the quality of the director. In such a loosely structured organization, the buck truly stops at the top, and the favored projects can either be nutty, like the brain-machine interface, or brilliant, like some of the successes mentioned.

DARPA is not quartered at the Pentagon, and that is one of its strengths. It was intended, after the shock of Sputnik, to do the things that the rigidly hierarchical armed services could not. Former DARPA Director Charlie Herzfeld, mentioned in your article, often describes one particular long-term investment by saying that when he sent money that way he never knew whether or not it would go down the drain, but that when he did get anything back it was both a surprise and more than worth the expenditure. In today's micromanaged world, that long view is apparently unacceptable.

The much-maligned "total information awareness" and terrorism futures market ideas may seem bad to many, but they are not nutty. DARPA is supposed to thrive on the distinction between crazy and long shot. (If I were director I would defend the first and quash the second -- that's what a director is for.)

Hal Lewis

Santa Barbara


DARPA was the agency that sponsored and funded what we now call the Internet. The only thing added was the Web graphical system that was done at the European physics center CERN. This alone absolves DARPA of too much blame for blunders. It is correct to say that there are high risks in what the agency contemplates. If anyone wants to put a leash on, they simply need to put a few more people on the staff that have some political, social-thinking acumen.

Gary Orthuber


Los Angeles Times Articles