The Department of Defense: You know, for kids

By Dan Raile , written on July 20, 2015

From The Robotics Desk

“A young science travels where the young take it.”

--Stewart Brand, Spacewar! Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums, Rolling Stone, Dec. 7, 1972

I was milling about the expo tents during a break in the action at last month’s DARPA Robotics Challenge, when these amplified words reached my ears from across the Pomona Fairplex:

“What the teams here have done is remarkable, but just imagine what they’d be capable of if they’d started when they were in elementary school.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is the investment arm of the Department of Defense, funnelling money through research laboratories for over 50 years to better smite America’s adversaries. The agency also has a long – legendary, even – history of fostering successful commercial industries and generations of scientists and engineers. Recently, however, it has taken a peculiar interest in America’s youth. DARPA was founded to help the US close the gap in the space-race with the Soviet Union. Now it struggles to stay apace with the very technologies it has spawned, and only the children can save it.

[Part One: How I learned to stop worrying and love DARPA]

The DARPA Robotics Challenge was a family affair, complete with continuous, sports-styled video coverage featured on a giant display above the field of robot endeavor, with the agency director Arati Prabhaker in the role of anchorperson.

The expo floor’s most popular tents were kid-friendly offerings featuring friendly anime robots and the opportunity to compete in a kid-safe form of robot battle. There was a chap at a US Navy booth guiding child pilots of robotic submarines in an above-ground pool. Unfortunately for many, the robots in the main event didn’t come to blows. They were helper bots. Because emergency response is one of DARPA’s directives,

In other words, the DARPA Robotics challenge was a romper room for the future, one of its stated goals to inculcate the young in the joys of science. Over it all flew the banner of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. 

* * * *

In 2012, when O’Reilly Media’s MAKE division announced that it had won a DARPA grant to participate in the agency’s Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MENTOR) program, there was some dissent from within the “maker” community. At the time of the announcement, many questioned whether Defense Advanced Research was a good fit for the DIY hackers and tinkerers celebrated and promoted by the burgeoning Maker Faires and the O’Reilly media family

Some, like hackerspace impresario Mitch Altman, went so far as to disavow any further relationship with MAKE. Altman explained his decision at Pando’s Don’t Be Awful event in January – an event that also featured Tim O’Reilly, for what it’s worth.

But why DARPA wanted to get involved in public high-school education, establishing a network of 1,000 American high-schools with Makerspaces sporting a curriculum based on self-directed learning. Dale Dougherty, founder of MAKE Magazine and originator of the Maker Faire, explained at the time that “the overarching objective of MENTOR is to develop and motivate a next generation of system designers and manufacturing innovators by exposing them to the principles of foundry-style digital manufacturing through modern prize-based design challenges.” 

Dougherty quoted then-DARPA Director (and current Google employee) Regina Duncan:

“One of the biggest challenges we face as a nation is the decline in our ability to make things.”

Dougherty continued:

“Having seen that quote, Saul Griffith and I decided to apply for the DARPA MENTOR program.”

On the opening day of this year’s Maker Faire Bay Area, I had the opportunity to ask Dougherty about his organization’s relationship with DARPA, at a media information session.

 “That program ended with the [March 1, 2013] Sequestration,” Dougherty replied. Incidentally, he was seated, POTUS-like, between two American flags as he spoke. I asked whether MAKE had any ongoing relationship with DARPA.

“No. But it was a great program and our current Makerspaces program came out of that original idea. And I think the maker movement will be known for having transformed education, making it about experiential learning rather than content delivery. I like to say that Maker Faire is an undercover learning event,” Dougherty said. It is no longer an undercover military event. 

If it bears mentioning why DARPA’s enticements to children may bear looking into, be mindful that it is the source of the Predator drone, or that in a recent “Broad Agency Announcement” of a grants it described its mission as “seeking innovative ideas and disruptive technologies that offer the potential for significant capability improvement across the Strategic Technology Office focus areas. This includes technology development related to Battle Management, Command and Control; Communications and Networks; Electronic Warfare; Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance; Position, Navigation, and Timing; Maritime, and Foundational Strategic Technologies and Systems.”

...and Classroom Management Systems.

I’m not going to argue that the American education system couldn’t use a swift kick in its STEM, but why exactly should the DoD do the kicking? Or even bother?

* * * *

At another event this spring, a “Robot Block Party” on the lawn at the Palo Alto offices of the WilmerHale law firm, I waited for a foodtruck burrito next to a guy in an SRI International fleece.

The lawn was strewn with robots and children delighting in their antics -- the “block party” was held midday on a Wednesday and was entirely a family affair. Around the perimeter of the yard were booths featuring the creations of students from local high schools and universities, as well as those of some professional outfits, including SRI. Many of these booths featured signs emblazoned with the seals of various military branches, including that of DARPA.

The man from SRI and I spoke about some of the robotics projects he was involved in. Our burritos eventually came and SRI guy and I waded back into the school-aged crowd.

“We’ve got a lot of interesting stuff going on with DARPA,” he said, “some really great things coming out of that. You should come take a tour.”

A few weeks later, I did just that. After signing in and confirming that I was a US citizen and wasn’t seeking access to classified research, I was shown to the office of SRI Robotics Director Rich Mahoney. In the tracklit corridors along the way, doors ajar gave onto academic-looking offices crammed with equipment and wires and cluttered workspaces. The glass windows on a pair of double-doors featured decals of Robocop and Iron Man.

I was shown a few of the (non-classified) projects underway in the lab -- an exo-suit, a bomb-defusing robotic hand, a tiny factory of finger-nail-sized robots building tiny scaffolding.

“They can do all kinds of different work, and we have made them a lot smaller. This is just a demo sized so you can see them better.”

Mahoney and I spoke for an hour or so about developments in robotics and SRI’s approach to robotics research. A certain company just on the other side of Stanford University from where we sat came up several times during the conversation.

“Google has branded the moonshot, but SRI has been doing it for 65 years,” Mahoney said.

“We are poor and hungry in the land of financial giants. It breeds good, efficient outcomes. We’re a 100 percent soft-money organization, so my children don’t eat if I’m not serving our customers. ”

Those customers are both governmental and not. DARPA has stuck with SRI since way, way back, a testament to the success and service rendered.

Mahoney said that since taking over as director six years ago, he’d overseen a string of “good DARPA wins” for the robotics lab. At SRI, he explained, DARPA funding usually initiates the first attempts to apply a technology that’s been incubating at the lab.

“DARPA is pre-angel, investing in higher-risk technology. And they’re as demanding as any VC, never satisfied. It can be very frustrating,” he said.

SRI also invests in and spins out its own technology into the commercial market. One such company, Redwood Robotics, deployed SRI’s top-notch robotic hand technology. It was bought by Google in 2013.

Google is not just a source of lucrative exits for SRI. The relationship is complicated. With a treasure-trove far exceeding the annual budget of DARPA, and a corporate pledge not to take government money, Google offers a final commercial destination for the successful results of DARPA-funded research, and SRI and its ilk represent a way for Google to get it hands on DARPA-cooked technology. But, in developing its own research and long-range projects labs, Google has also become a competitor for top talent, in many ways by being an imitator.

Due to decades of close affinity, SRI’s project groups – in artificial intelligence, bioscience, robotics and so on – map closely to the research directives of DARPA. Increasingly, they map well to those of Google as well. 

“We’re basically a bullseye for staff poaching,” Mahoney said, though he stressed that turnover at SRI was stable and retention high.

So why is DARPA reaching out to the children? One reason is that, in its recruiting as in its investing, the agency needs to be years ahead of the commercial market in order to earn its continued Congressional funding. While Google keeps its research labs cloaked in sexy hush, DARPA is brandishing robots to impress the kidos.  

Corporate Silicon boffins are TED-talking sources of billion-dollar inspirations for current university students, so DARPA has to aim younger. If only the agency could recapture the magic of bygone days, when the government-funded research community around Stanford garnered the prosy praises of Stewart Brand in the pages of the Rolling Stone, attesting that DARPA was an “instance of enlightened government” and “one of the rare success stories of Government action.” That in the halls of research labs like SRI and nearby SAIL, one could find a strange and fascinating tribe, the hackers:

“They are the ones who translate human demands into code that the machines can understand and act on. They are legion. Fanatics with a potent new toy. A mobile new-found elite, with its own apparat, language and character, its own legends and humor. Those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology which has an odd softness to it; outlaw country, where rules are not decree or routine so much as the starker demands of what’s possible.” 

“Legends abound from early ARPA days, full of freedom and weirdness.”

When you’re getting coverage like that, you don’t need to put on a dog-and-pony robot show.

At the time Brand was writing, the proto-Internet ARPA Net, was just picking up steam.

“How Net usage will evolve is uncertain. There’s a curious mix of theoretical fascination and operational resistance around the scheme. The resistance may have something to do with equipping a future Big Brother and his Central Computer. The fascination resides in the thorough rightness of computers as communications instruments, which implies some revolutions.”

Could one of the revolutions of the Internet be the disruption into irrelevance of the very government research infrastructure that gave it birth? That's a question the children will have to answer.