Voices from DARPA
Summary: DARPA’s podcast series, "Voices from DARPA," offers a revealing and informative window on the minds of the Agency's program managers. In each episode, a program manager from one of DARPA’s six technical offices—Biological Technologies, Defense Sciences, Information Innovation, Microsystems Technology, Strategic Technology, and Tactical Technology—will discuss in informal and personal terms why they are at DARPA and what they are up to. The goal of "Voices from DARPA" is to share with listeners some of the institutional know-how, vision, process, and history that together make the “secret sauce” DARPA has been adding to the Nation’s innovation ecosystem for nearly 60 years. On another level, we at DARPA just wanted to share the pleasure we all have every day—in the elevator, in the halls, in our meeting rooms—as we learn from each other and swap ideas and strive to change what’s possible.
In this episode of our Voices from DARPA podcast, Joseph Evans, a program manager since 2015 in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Strategic Technology Office (STO), shares with listeners how his embrace of data, communications technologies, and the electromagnetic spectrum—the invisible place where radio, radar, and other radio frequency (RF) signals live and propagate—has led to the portfolio of programs that he now oversees. This portfolio includes a program that essentially renders visible the frenetic RF activity that is going on in the space we occupy. Another program features the challenge of converting radar systems into communications channels. In yet another, Joe is striving to find better ways of leveraging the ever-growing reservoir of commercial and open-source satellite imagery to improve warfighters’ abilities to detect, monitor, and track what is going on, that is, to improve situational awareness. Joe also flies planes, skippers boats, skies, runs, and sometimes straps on a guitar to send acoustic waves into the same space hosting all of those electromagnetic waves that he cares so much about.
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Anne Fischer, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), recounts how she has been applying a chemist’s mindset, which began taking hold in her as a child when her parents gave her a chemistry set, in her boundary-pushing portfolio of extreme-chemistry projects at DARPA. In one of them, she is overseeing research that could pump up the creativity and productivity of chemists by way of artificial intelligence that plans and optimizes molecule-making procedures and with automated equipment that synthesizes the actual molecules. In another of her projects, Fischer has her sights on molecule-based computing that could open the way to radically new and powerful ways to process information and store data. In yet another program, she is helping to develop one of the most unusual pickup trucks ever: it will have an engine that burns and destroys chemical warfare agents, producing power in the process. There’s plenty more to Fischer’s expansive molecular vision on the world and national defense.
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Paul “Rusty” Thomas, a program manager since 2017 in the Agency’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO), chronicles how his several-decade career within the commercial space industry has taught him a thing or two about designing, manufacturing, launching, and operating more than 130 civilian and government satellites. At DARPA, he is bringing that background to bear on one of the Agency’s more ambitious space-technology projects, Blackjack, which upon completion could encompass a mesh-like network of thousands of small and inexpensive satellites for delivering global, all-the-time sensing, communications, and other national-security services. With boots-on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan, a pilot’s license, and a personal altitude of 6’8”, Rusty projects a larger-than-life persona, illuminated by an infectious sense of mission to innovate the way toward future-generation space technology.
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Renee Wegrzyn, a program manager since 2016 in the Agency’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO), recounts the origins of her current interests in synthetic biology and genomics, both of them powerful frameworks for engineering biological systems for technological ends. Still wielding influence are her childhood days amidst Florida’s abundant wildlife, a science-hooked sister, and a high school field trip in which Renee encountered fossil mastodon teeth. Her subsequent experience in the biotechnology industry got her hooked on the versatile power of combining biology and engineering in ways that can produce new medical technologies, materials, and other products. Along the way, Wegrzyn recounts what for her was a “Sputnik moment” in biology, based on the emergence of the celebrity gene-editing toolset known for short as CRISPR, which has underwritten an immensely powerful genetic and genomic engineering framework. Under Renee’s DARPA programs, Living Foundries and Safe Genes, researchers are innovating new means of manipulating and leveraging biology’s ways of eliciting traits in organisms and of making molecules and materials while also developing means for keeping those same bioengineering capabilities in check to hedge against their misuse or unintended consequences.
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, David Gunning chronicles his three tours of duty as a DARPA program manager (PM), including his latest tour with the Agency’s Information Innovation Office. Throughout his DARPA service, David has combined his training and interests in computer science and psychology in ways that have extended the boundaries of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, both for warfighters and for the general public. During his first tour as a PM in the 90’s, he managed a portfolio of AI projects including the Command Post of the Future (CPoF) program, which delivered technology that was later adopted by the US Army as its Command and Control system for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. During his previous tour, from 2003-2008, David managed the Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL) program that later led to Siri, perhaps the most famous virtual personal assistant. Now, in his third tour, he is aiming for a new generation of artificial intelligences that earn the confidence of their human users by being able to explain the decisions and actions that emerge from their internal computation. David is delighted that as he works to expand the frontiers of AI, he also will have the privilege of participating in the emergence of a more familiar variety of intelligence in his first grandson, who lives nearby.
In this episode of Voices from DARPA, COL Matthew Hepburn, a program manager since 2013 with the Agency’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO), explains how his urgent ambition to develop ways and means of disarming current and emerging infectious and pandemic diseases—think here of Ebola, influenza, and Chikungunya—has led to a portfolio of go-for-the-gold programs that ultimately could reduce human suffering by an immeasurable degree. A biomedical engineer, physician, and global disease fighter by training and experience, Matt has known since he was a child that taking care of people was going to be his mission and he says DARPA is a place where he might be able to carry out that childhood dream to an extreme that would not be possible elsewhere.
In this episode of Voices from DARPA, electrical engineer Kerry Bernstein, a program manager since 2012 with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Microsystems Technology Office (MTO), chronicles how his decades of experience in the trenches of the microelectronics manufacturing world drives what he does at DARPA. He is all about ensuring the reliability and integrity of the microelectronic chips the country needs and uses in just about every military and civilian setting you can think of. With electronics manufacturing distributed over so many countries and manufacturing facilities now, the threat of tampering, counterfeiting, and other nefarious actions has become more complex and in need of management than ever. For his part, Bernstein has been shepherding the development of some of the highest technology there is—in tiny glitter-sized packages, no less—to keep our electronics supply chain safe and sound.
In this episode of Voices from DARPA, physicist Rosa Alejandra “Ale” Lukaszew, a program manager who is just finishing her first year with the Agency’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), recounts how her interest in quantum phenomena took root at the age of 10 when already she could write down the equations of uncertainty. Now, at DARPA, she is channeling what became a lifelong fascination with fundamental physics into opening new pathways toward understanding and harnessing electronic ensembles and the correlated ways these diminutive entities “spin” and otherwise behave in various material settings. In her role as a program manager, Ale would like to make it possible for the researchers working on her DARPA programs to forge next-generation paradigms in electronics for applications in memory, logic, energy conversion devices, and sensors.
In this episode of Voices from DARPA, sociocultural anthropologist Adam Russell, a program manager with the Agency’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), discusses his vision for a range of technologies that could help usher in a next-generation social science. At the crux of this future view are novel experimental designs, practices, and tools to tackle research challenges that traditionally have limited the value of social science for national security. Russell believes these advances may help yield scientific results that are far more reliable, validated, predictive, and otherwise valuable for making decisions and basing actions than has been the case to date. Among the emerging and morphing issues that affect national security, and for which Russell says new approaches in social sciences might help, is the way modern environments can impact social identities and the choices people and groups make based on those identities. Contributing to his own self identifications, and to his cognitive style as a scientist, are his experiences as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and a national-level rugby player.
In this episode of Voices from DARPA, Jim Galambos, a program manager with the Agency’s Strategic Technology Office (STO), talks about the opportunities and challenges of rethinking military platforms like submarines and aircraft as systems of systems, much as a human body can be thought of as a system of circulatory, neurological, sensory, musculoskeletal, and other subsystems. The system-of-systems paradigm, Galambos says, is a pathway toward military assets that can be more versatile, agile, evolvable, tailorable, survivable, and otherwise capable than previous generations of platforms. He also discusses the value that informative failure can have for achieving ambitious successes.
In this episode of Voices from DARPA, Maj. Christopher Orlowski, a program manager with extensive military experience and now at the end of his tenure of the Agency’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO), draws a line from his research programs in mechanized and robotic undersuits, vehicles, and human-machine systems, which are driven by the goal of empowering warfighters on the ground in unprecedented ways, all of the way back to the G. I. Joe cartoons he watched as a kid.
In this episode of Voices from DARPA, synthetic biologist and program manager Justin Gallivan of the Agency’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO) shares his vision of leveraging biology’s astonishing, evolution-honed abilities for making molecules and materials (think here of protein and wood) into powerful new technologies that fall into the emerging category of synthetic biology. Among the potential payoffs he discusses include pre-toughening warfighters’ guts for the microbial challenges they face in faraway missions and growing the structures of military installations from what could be thought of as seeds. Be warned: blue poop and interplanetary construction come up in this engaging discussion.
In this episode of Voices from DARPA, get inside the full-spectrum engineering head of Dr. Troy Olsson, a program manager since 2014 in the Agency’s Microsystems Technology Office (MTO). Listen in as Olsson describes progress toward vanishing materials that can keep sensitive electronic components out of adversaries’ hands; unmanned air vehicles that can deliver provisions and then just disappear; massive miniaturization of low-frequency antennas for underwater radio communication; and stand-alone sensors that require almost no power at all yet for years remain vigilant to sounds, radio signals, and other environmental signals of interest to warfighters. And then there’s those really far-out technologies that Olsson hopes to enjoy one day.
In this episode of Voices from DARPA, get to know Dr. Jonathan Pfautz, a program manager since 2015 in DARPA's Information Innovation Office (I2O), where he epitomizes the Agency’s deliberate blindness to traditional disciplinary boundaries. With a background in computer engineering and electrical engineering, as well as in the cognitive and behavioral sciences, Pfautz is seeking to develop new techniques for massive-scale simulations of social behavior, including information sharing, as it takes form and evolves within the context of today’s astoundingly powerful information technologies and online social networking infrastructures. Pfautz also is concerned about the evolution of human-machine etiquette. And listen in on how he and his wife are so profoundly devoted to the scientific enterprise that they named their daughters after two giants in the history of science.
Mr. Wade Shen of the Agency’s Information Innovation Office has made it his mission to improve how human beings and their computers put their respective heads and cognitive frameworks together to yield deep insight into how the world works and how information affects the way people think and act. Listen in on how Shen is enacting that mission with the DARPA programs he oversees, among them the Data Driven Discovery of Models (D3M) program, the Quantitative Crisis Response (QCR) program, and the Memex program, which is devoted to advancing search capabilities far beyond the current state of the art. Shen also muses about what it would take to build a universal translator that would enable all 7.4 billion people on the planet to overcome language barriers and to talk with one another.