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DARPA Tech Forum Previews National Security Future

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s "Wait, What?" Future Technology Forum wrapped up Friday with a remembrance of those who died on 9/11 and presentations covering the bleeding edges of everything from extraterrestrial life and cold molecules to lighting up the living brain.

More than 1,400 scientists and engineers engaged on those and many other topics during the sold-out Sept. 9-11 forum. Writing in the Wait, What? activity feed, one attendee likened it to the best science fair ever, on steroids.

More than a few said it was the best meeting they’d ever attended.

DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar told the audience on the forum’s first day that the ultimate goal of the forum -- in line with the agency’s mission -- “is to make the pivotal early investments in breakthrough technologies to create huge new possibilities for national security.”

Taking Risks

At DARPA, she added, the job is to take the risks required to reach for huge impacts in national security capabilities.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened the meeting and other defense officials spent time there. Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, was there with Stephen Welby, deputy assistant secretary of defense for systems engineering -- and a DARPA alum, Prabhakar noted.

In one of the day’s sessions, DARPA Program Manager Justin Sanchez announced research milestones in two DARPA neuroscience programs. One, from the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, uses direct links to the brain to give a sense of touch to prosthetic hands.

Neuroscience Milestones

DARPA reports that a 28-year-old paralyzed for more than a decade from a spinal cord injury is the first person to be able to “feel” physical sensations through a prosthetic hand connected directly to his brain. He also could identify which of his mechanical fingers was being touched.

In the second milestone, scientists from DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory program have found that targeted electrical brain stimulation can improve memory.

Electrical arrays implanted in the brain’s memory centers show promise for helping patients improve scores on memory tests. The research, DARPA says, could lead to therapies for wounded warriors and others with memory deficits caused by traumatic brain injury or disease.

In other presentations during the forum, scientists and engineers described their work and answered questions from the St. Louis and online audience.

Space Robotics

Pamela Melroy, deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office and a former astronaut, discussed a DARPA project called Phoenix that involves building space robotics in geosynchronous Earth orbit, or GEO.

GEO is a stable region of space 36,000 kilometers, or 22,370 miles, from Earth. Because the orbital period matches almost exactly the time it takes for Earth to rotate on its axis in a day, Melroy said, objects in GEO seem to be hovering directly over one place on the planet.

Because GEO is a stable environment for machines -- but hostile for people because of high radiation levels -- DARPA thinks the key technology there is space robotics.

As part of Phoenix, DARPA is building a robotic arm like the one that helped build the International Space Station but with greater levels of automation and safety, Melroy said. It has, for example, robot reflexes and compliance control to minimize the risk of debris from collisions.

Port of Call

“We think this is a critical capability to building a transportation hub that allows transportation to and from Earth's surface, from low Earth orbit to GEO, and even beyond Earth orbit,” she added.

Space capabilities are not about a single monolithic satellite with a few capabilities, Melroy said. DARPA sees them as creating a vibrant, robust ecosystem that involves transportation, repair, refueling, upgrading and on-site construction.

“So look at the great seafaring port cities in the world for inspiration,” the former astronaut said, “and imagine a port of call at 36,000 kilometers.”

Autonomous AI?

Another presenter was Tom Dietterich, professor of computer science at Oregon State University and president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

During a talk on artificial intelligence, he discussed autonomous AI systems like those that operate some hedge funds, and like the fully autonomous financial systems that run Wall Street trading. Other examples are self-driving cars and automated surgical assistants.

AI is enabling technology for such applications, all of which involve high-stakes decision-making about matters of life and death, severe injury or huge amounts of money, Dieterrich said.

Some people are afraid of the technology, he added, as indicated by Stephen Hawking’s recent warning that robotic AI could end mankind and Elon Musk’s statement that AI is civilization’s biggest existential threat.

Dieterrich says such fears are fed by misconceptions, one of which is that someday computers will become smarter than people and then one day they achieve self-awareness and turn against humanity, as did the AI network Skynet in James Cameron’s 1984 film "The Terminator."

Smarter than People

“In fact, our tool AI systems [for example, personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana] are already much smarter than we are,” he said. “We wouldn't use them if they weren't superior to people.”

But AI systems won’t be fully autonomous unless people design them to be that way, Dieterrich said, and give the systems access to resources like money, electrical power or materials.

“When we give them control over those resources, that's when we face a challenge,” he added. “So I think the danger of AI is not so much in artificial intelligence itself … but in the autonomy. What should we give computers control over?”

Dieterrich himself doesn’t think people should create fully autonomous systems -- those over which they have no control. And when people do need the faster-than-human speed and autonomy of computer systems to trade hedge funds or respond to cyber attacks, he says, they should always leave themselves the option of pulling the plug.

Are We Alone?

Near the end of the forum, the founding Director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office Geoff Ling moderated a panel titled “Are We Alone and Have We Been?” During the discussion, a paleontologist-molecular geneticist, a biophysicist and an astronomer discussed the likelihood and implications of finding other life in the universe.

As the session wrapped up, Ling observed that some in the audience might wonder why a national security research and development organization like DARPA would focus on extraterrestrial life.

“DARPA has a unique mandate,” he explained. “We need to think about things that others really don't. Where is the next surprise that will come our way? Where's the next surprise that we can generate? You don't know unless you ask, and you won't find unless you explore.”

The world of biology is young relative to the fields of physics, mathematics and chemistry, but biology is a rich discipline and a place, Ling said, “where surprise is waiting for us.”

Not to engage the science and engineering community in such discussions, he added, “is not in DARPA's best interest -- not in the nation's best interest. So if somebody's going to do it, let it be DARPA.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)

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