Your What, Wait Moment, continued
September 11, 2015, 2:05pm ET
Throughout this Forum, your What’s Up at Wait, What? blogger has asked attendees and participants if they have had an exceptional Wait, What? moment at the meeting. Did you have a conversation that blew your mind? Did you learn about a concept in a plenary talk that helped you forge new conceptual connections? Did you see a DARPA Demo that altered your views of what was possible or not?
As a partner in DARPA programs run by the Information Innovation Office, Jeri Hessman of Schafer Corporation spent most of her time at the Demo Hall. But that gave her an opportunity to talk with dozens of program managers from all over the agency and to experience a wide sampling of DARPA technologies in various phases of development. That sampling constituted her What, Wait? moment, which she articulated with admirable succinctness: “Holy crap, this is all so cool!” She noted that it was amazing even for her, a member of the technology community, to experience the head-spinning collective effect of all of the technologies showcased in the hall.
A Senate committee staffer shared two Wait, What moments. One was during the plenary session by MIT’s Ramesh Raskar, when Raskar was talking about using femtosecond photography to look around corners. “I was, like, ‘you can do that?,’” which is, of course, just a variation on the phrase “Wait, What?” “It was eye opening research that I had never heard anything about.” The staffer’s second moment centered on all of the interactions between government researchers and the private sector going on in the Demo Hall, which was a veritable petting zoo of DARPA-supported technology. Said the staffer: “We really want to see much more churn and exchange of ideas and that seems to be happening here.”
Many attendees were taken with the inclusion of ethics in the discussion by plenary lecturer and breakout session moderator R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and ethics at the law and medical schools of the University of Wisconsin. That was the case for a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Marine Corp., who said she found it energizing to consider questions of “not whether we can invent specific technologies—because we have—but whether we should." This same servicewoman was taken by the nanobots and microbots in the Demo Hall. Said the Lt. Col., “It was amazing to tell my children about it: Oh my Goodness, we have created what they would see in a movie. It's actually here.”
For Justin Manzo of Booz Allen Hamilton, who was manning the Demo Hall booth for the Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) program, his Wait, What? moment occurred when a visitor working on improving surgical training came to the booth. Recalled Manzo: “He looked at it and said, ‘Wow,’ this would be incredibly useful for training someone to do really delicate spinal surgeries.”
A Wait, What” moment for Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was when he learned about ideas for making it “much easier to develop computer-numerically-controlled machine tools that could be customized for a particular manufacturing process," something he said has exciting technology and economic implications. “It could allow us to repatriate a lot of manufacturing that went overseas because of differentials in labor cost," Kalil said. "This could create a paradigm for eliminating some of those differences.”
What was your Wait, What moment? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
September 10, 2015, 1:15pm ET
A technology forum would not be a Wait, What? forum without Wait, What? moments. So your roaming "What’s Up at Wait, What?" blogger embarked on a small-batch quasi-random sampling of attendees to hear about their Wait, What? moments.
We found Mark Martell of BAE Systems and a DARPA Riser standing at the DARPA history wall in the Demo Hall, getting some insight into the deep roots that some breakthrough technologies have. “I was surprised how long ago some of these technologies that most of us think are new actually came about, like the F117, in 1997. That was years before I was born!”
A woman from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory working on DARPA’s ACTUV and Upward Falling Payloads (UFP) programs said that she had a “beginning of a thought” sparked by the topological data structures Gunnar Carlsson showed during his talk. She said those complex structures reminded her of initial array designs that she and her colleagues had worked on, and that Carlsonn's talk suggested to her a possible new perspective on those designs. “I don't know if there is anywhere to go with that, but it is a thought,” she said. To which we say: That's exactly the kind of connection Wait, What? aims to catalyze!
On the activity feed of the meeting app, one respondant who was asked what her Wait, What? moment was, said she “will wait eagerly for improvements in diaper design,” a thought catalyzed by Zach Serber’s talk about "impossible materials". Another respondant described her Wait, What? moment to be a fresh appreciation of how: “the convergence of unlikely variables can create a potentially new field.”
Cheryl Martin, a former acting director of ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s version of DARPA, and founder of the consulting firm Harwich Partners, was taken by the work she learned about in the Demo Hall on the vexing challenges posed by an ever more congested electromagnetic spectrum that is under ever increasing demand. “Thinking about the cross applications outside of the direct military and security applications and how and why it can help us rethink things like congestion and routing and apportioning of the spectrum in different ways really got me to thinking Aha!, Oh!, Huh!"
Which is to say: Wait, What?
Visions from Next-Generation Innovators
September 9, 2015, 6:30pm ET
When the more than 50 early-career DARPA Risers entered the briefing room on the second floor of America’s Convention Center in St. Louis on Wednesday morning, they were not expecting the rock star’s welcome they received from DARPA's program managers, office directors and deputies, and top leadership including Director Arati Prabhakar and Deputy Director Steven Walker. The applause and hooting went on for a solid two minutes.
“We are excited to be with you today, to hear about your ideas and how they could lead to breakthrough technologies for national security,” Walker said in the moments before the Risers—who are graduates, post-docs and early career researchers—took up positions by the posters they prepared to explain and show off those ideas.
The posters are testimony to the diversity and audacity of the minds of these Risers, who are the sorts of investigators DARPA researchers would hope to partner with in the future. The Riser program is all about DARPA scientists and engineers meeting and greeting this next generation of potential disrupters at the leading edges of science and technology.
“Bamboo Binaries: Flexible Programs That Bend Rather Than Break” was one of poster titles. With this computer security concept, Per Larsen, a postdoctoral scholar in computer science at the University of California, Irvine, and who is associated with Immunant Inc., aims to help out consumers and users of closed-source software who, he says, “are more or less at the mercy of the software vendors with respect to mitigation of software vulnerabilities. There is nothing much a user can do, short of altogether ceasing to use the software in question until a patch is available and has been installed.” Larsen wants to put an end to that near-term helplessness.
As his poster indicated, DARPA Riser Marc Lichman, an electrical engineering Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech, is developing the concept of “antifragile communications,” which he explains as “the capability for a wireless communications system to improve in performance due to some type of stressor or harsh condition. The term 'antifragile' refers to systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.” Not exactly an intuitive idea.
With her project, “Desalination through highly-mismatched solar energy conversion, Emily Tow, an electrical engineering Ph.D. candidate at MIT, seeks to achieve efficient solar desalination by driving breakthrough innovations that would allow the energy of a single photon from the sun to, as she puts it, “instigate a smaller change in the state of tens to thousands of molecules.” In that way, she surmises, it will be possible to separate water from formerly dissolved salt components in ways that have not been done before.
The mash of ideas played out in kaleidoscopic splendor. Quantum computers inspired by the way plants harvest and use solar energy during photosynthesis. Reinventing computing with integrated photonics;that is, with photons rather than electrons. Antisense polynucleotide analogs for new classes of antibiotics. A project that starts with previously inscrutable data but then runs physical models to tease out the causes of the data. Among the goals: to make biological measurements that seemed impossible before. One of the more mind-bending poster titles went like this: “Entanglement as the fabric of spacetime.”
Bill Regli, Deputy Director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office and one of the originators of the DARPA Risers program, could not have been more pleased by the depth and diversity of the research he was learning about. “Almost all of them have these world-changing goals,” he said, pointing out how DARPAesque that attitude is. “I hope this experience is transformative for them and their careers.” Given that some of the Risers would have the opportunity to lunch with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and to share their projects in front of 1,400 attendees at the Wait, What? forum, chances are good that that Regli’s hope will be realized.
- Your “What’s Up at ‘Wait, What?’” Blogger
September 8, 2015, 11:45pm ET
When I first started telling people a few months ago that I would be participating in a DARPA event called “Wait, What?” they would laugh. Then they would beam me an expression of wrinkle-browed bemusement. Both reactions were projections of puzzled surprise, which is one of The Urban Dictionary’s several definitions for the phrase, “Wait, What?” and, as it turns out, exactly the reaction DARPA was aiming for as it planned this week’s activities.
It all started with a series of brainstorming sessions well over a year ago in which one of the handful of DARPA employees mapping out the event relayed a phrase his teenage daughter had uttered around the kitchen table. It was a mundane moment. She had been seemingly paying not an iota of attention to the parental discussion going on when her DARPA-working dad said something she found to be of apparent interest but also of dubious veracity—he cannot now remember what it was—transiently waking her attention and training it his way. “Wait, What?” she blurted, as she spun around to meet her dad’s eyes, conveying that look of skepticism and pity with which teenagers are apt to engage their parents.
Months later, that DARPA dad would compare his daughter’s subliminal detect-and-alert system as reminiscent of the agency’s own N-ZERO program in which embedded sensors on a battlefield are designed to lay dormant until a relevant event, like the sound of a military vehicle, occurred in the environment. Only then, would the sensors wake up into a more active stance and begin communicating with defense personnel and facilities. But at the time, he recalled, it struck him that “Wait, What?” was precisely the reaction he had been experiencing with some regularity at DARPA as he learned about emerging capabilities under development there—fly an F-35 simulator by thought alone? Cull from a photon a full Scheherazade tale of where it had been and all it had seen?—things he would have presumed were simply impossible. “Wait, What?” he realized, was the teen-speak essence of DARPA’s grownup mission to foment technological surprise.
So rather than chalk up the kitchen table moment as a routine and forgettable child-parent interaction, this DARPA dad discerned an opportunity. With some admitted trepidation, he floated the “Wait, What?” term at the next planning session at the Agency’s headquarters in Ballston, VA.
The idea, to put it politely, was met with “skepticism,” another of the planners recently recalled, adding that he himself had favored candidate titles that were more self-explanatory, if more conventional. In play at that point were titles like “Emerging Breakthrough Technologies Forum,” “What’s Next,” “Thinking Big,” and the flatly descriptive “DARPA National Security Technologies Conference.” But over time, “Wait, What?” gained a following, especially after the explanatory subtitle “A Future Technology Forum” got appended.
The title ends up doing “exactly what we wanted,” the initially doubtful meeting planner said. “It causes people to pause and take note, wondering what this could be all about and capturing the out-of-the-ordinary concepts that DARPA is always aiming to bring up.”
We hope everyone attending in St. Louis or watching remotely online will have many Wait, What? moments over the next few days. That will be one measure of our success.
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