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.
Episode 30: The Sensor Sorcerer
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Dr. John Burke, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Microsystems Technology Office (MTO), goes deep, quantum-mechanics deep. The miniaturized, affordable, and ultrastable atomic clocks he hopes to make possible would kick in if the GPS system were to go down due to natural or adversarial actions. Such clocks could keep the military machine viable while also preserving or even enhancing the operation of civilian must-haves ranging from financial transactions to ridesharing (think Uber and Lyft). Burke has teams of researchers pursuing magnificently sensitive magnetometers for detecting objects, materials, and activities otherwise hidden underground, underwater, or behind bone. Among these sensors’ potential applications is real-time, in-field diagnostics and monitoring of concussions, whether in battlefield or sports field settings. These and other sensing capabilities Burke is fostering are based largely on the quantum-mechanical ways that atoms behave (e.g., the invariant nuclear oscillations that serve at the ticks of atomic clocks) or respond to signals in the world (e.g., faint magnetic fields from brains or buried ordnance). The overall goal of this quantum-mechanical finessing, Burke says, is to “peer around the curtain to see more and more of everything around us.”
Episode 29: The Light and Matter Maestro
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Dr. Michael Fiddy, a program manager since 2016 in the agency’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), takes listeners on a whirlwind tour of his programs. They all share a common thread, which stems from Fiddy’s lifelong interest in how light — electromagnetic (EM) energy, more generally — interacts with matter. At DARPA, he has expressed that interest by challenging researchers to investigate whether biological cells interact with one another via EM signals; how it might be possible to use low-frequency EM radiation to see through just about anything (including metal); and how precisely engineered surfaces might tap into quantum mechanical phenomena (Casimir forces) in the vacuum of space in a quest for fuel-less propulsion technology. As Fiddy points out in the podcast, “We have been doing science for a few hundred years and there still is an awful lot that we don’t know.”
Episode 28: Swarm Commander
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Dr. Timothy Chung, a program manager since 2016 in the agency’s Tactical Technology Office, delves into his robotics and autonomous technology programs – the Subterranean (SubT) Challenge and OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET). From robot soccer to live-fly experimentation programs involving dozens of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), he explains how he aims to assist humans heading into unknown environments via advances in collaborative autonomy and robotics.
The SubT Challenge focuses on the underground – human-made tunnels, the urban underground, and natural cave networks. Teams from around the world vie for prizes via Systems (physical) and Virtual competitions, with air and ground platforms attempting to rapidly map, navigate, and search the subterranean domain.
The OFFSET program envisions small-unit infantry forces seamlessly teaming with swarms of even hundreds of (UASs) and/or small unmanned ground systems. The program combines emerging technologies in swarm autonomy and human-swarm teaming.
Chung shares how he learned to see things not as impossible, but rather un-possible because, “it's not that it can't be done. It just hasn't been done yet.”
Episode 27: Detecting Threats with Time to Act
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Mark Wrobel, a program manager since 2019 in the agency’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), chronicles progress in the SIGMA+ program and its potential near-term relevance to monitoring the environment for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The now-completed predecessor program, SIGMA, delivered a sensor and analysis system for detecting imminent nuclear and radiological threats in complex settings like cities, stadiums, and travel hubs. That system has been transitioning into deployments. The charge of the SIGMA+ program is to expand the threat-detection system’s abilities to include an extensive range of chemical, explosive, and biological agents. To avoid costly false alarms and potentially lethal false negatives (missed detections), the technology must be able to reliably discern actual threats from the myriad benign nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological signals that typically are present in any given location. As Wrobel puts it, “We are trying to move detection to the left of boom.”
Episode 26: The Eclectic Biotechnician
In this episode of our Voices from DARPA podcast, Eric Van Gieson, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO), recounts how a boyhood fascination with DARPA ultimately led to his current role overseeing a portfolio of envelope-pushing programs. These include a program that seeks new diagnostic tools for perhaps the earliest-possible detection of exposure to pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19; an effort to identify and leverage the biomolecular bases underlying optimal performance in such roles as piloting aircraft or participating in special forces missions; research toward new personal-protection technologies that combine advanced featherweight fabrics with designed, bio-based agents applied directly to the body where they can neutralize injurious chemical and biological agents before they can do damage; and a bold biomedical strategy that stands a chance of replacing some medicine-based treatments (for conditions ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to post-traumatic stress disorder) with treatments based on the electrical stimulation of the peripheral nervous system, specifically the far-reaching vagus nerve.
Episode 25: New Molecular Tactics for Pandemic Times
In this episode of our Voices from DARPA podcast, we turn again to Dr. Anne Fischer, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), this time to learn how she has been swerving two of her programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of those programs, Accelerating Molecular Discovery (AMD), centers on developing machine-learning and other computational techniques to dramatically streamline the discovery of molecules with properties relevant to the Department of Defense. Think here of chemical-warfare simulants for research, coatings that protect assets and personnel, specialty fuels, and medicines to counter emerging threats. With an eye on that last one, Dr. Fischer has been swerving some AMD work into an urgent hunt for molecules with previously unrecognized antibiotic properties. One specific target is new treatments for secondary bacterial lung infections in patients with COVID-19. The other program Dr. Fischer is swerving into the COVID-19 response is Make-It. The program’s envisioned deliverables for the DoD include tabletop chemical-synthesis systems that can produce chemicals when and where they are needed. Think here of the ability to quickly synthesize pharmaceuticals in a battlefield setting. Think here also of a chemical-synthesis channel independent of globalized supply chains that can become compromised. Now, this capability for on-demand synthesis of chemical products, including antivirals and reagents for diagnostic tests, is revealing Make-It technology as a promising component of our ability to respond to emergencies such as outbreaks of infectious diseases.
For the previous discussion with Dr. Fischer about her background, interests, and longer-term goals for the programs she manages, please also listen to Episode 22, titled The Chemquistador.
Episode 24: Preventing Pandemics
We find ourselves in pandemic times. The global population is under siege by an infectious virus new to humankind. It’s called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2. It’s the causative agent of the pandemic disease designated COVID-19. This viral adversary knows no politics. It recognizes no national boundaries. It is unconcerned with anyone’s identity. All 7.8 billion of us are the same to the virus: we are all hosts suitable to commandeer to make copies of itself. DARPA has long recognized how devastating pandemic diseases like COVID-19 could be and the Agency embraced the attitude that it could do something about the threat of pandemics. In recent years, it has been creating and supporting communities of innovators who are doing the science and applying the lessons they are learning to create a technology platform that stands a chance of this: preventing any outbreak of infectious disease—anywhere and anytime—from growing into a global conflagration like the one we are experiencing right now. In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, join a team of program managers in the Agency’s Biological Technology Office as they explain how they are striving to develop a multi-pronged technologies platform that has the potential to render COVID-19 humanity’s last pandemic.
Episode 23: Joe Spectrum
In this episode of our Voices from DARPA podcast, Joseph Evans, a program manager since 2015 in the 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 includes 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 their 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.
Episode 22: The Chemquistador
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 handed her a chemistry set, in an amazing 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.
Episode 21: Mr. Thousand Satellites
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.
Episode 20: The Genomineer
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.
Episode 19: The AI Intermediary
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.
Episode 18: The Disease Slayer
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 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.
Episode 17: Guardian of the Chips
In this episode of Voices from DARPA, electrical engineer Kerry Bernstein, a program manager since 2012 with the 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 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.
Episode 16: The Spinmaster
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.
Episode 15: The DARPAnthropologist
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 can 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.
Episode 14: The Mix-and-Matcher
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.
Episode 13: The Squad Transformer
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.
Episode 12: The Neobiologist
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 are growing military installations from what could be thought of as seeds and pre-toughening warfighters’ guts for the microbial challenges they face in faraway missions. Be warned: blue poop and interplanetary construction come up in this engaging discussion.
Episode 11: The Thin-Air Specialist
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.
Episode 10: The Social Simulator
In this episode of Voices from DARPA, get to know Dr. Jonathan Pfautz, a program manager since 2015 in the 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.
Episode 9: The Datamancer
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 the DARPA programs that 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 talk with one another.
Episode 8: The Uncertainty Wrangler
Dr. Fariba Fahroo of the Agency’s Defense Sciences Office discusses just how pivotal mathematics can be for, in her words, “keeping our models honest.” By characterizing the uncertainties inherent in the computer models and algorithms we use to better understand complex phenomena, such as the flow of air over aircraft surfaces and through high-performance engines, as well as to design, engineer, and control today’s ever more complicated civilian and military systems, Fahroo aims to develop modeling frameworks by which these systems can be built and deployed with more confidence and insight than ever into their strengths and vulnerabilities.
Episode 7: The Geolocator
Mr. Lin Haas of the Agency’s Strategic Technology Office shares his expansive view on the current and future roles of Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) technology, whose most famous incarnation is known as the Global Positioning System (GPS). Haas reveals ambitious PNT programs that include efforts to develop an undersea system that provides omnipresent positioning capabilities across ocean basins where GPS signals do not go and to exploit environmental signals, such as the electromagnetic features of lightning, for back-up geolocation service if GPS were to become unavailable.
Episode 6: The Insectophile
Dr. Blake Bextine of the Agency’s Biological Technologies Office talks about his virus- and insect-mediated vision for protecting food crops from natural and human-wrought threats, including drought and biological warfare. With his Insect Allies program, Bextine aims to increase food security by recruiting insects to deliver viruses, which have been modified to bear protective genes, into plants where those virus-carried genes could save the plants from the threats they face. He also shares ideas about a future with more insects on the menu to feed the many more mouths that likely will be on the planet.
Episode 5: The Mind Mixer
Dr. Paul Cohen of the Agency’s Information Innovation Office talks about his efforts to develop better and more seamless ways for human intelligence and machine intelligence to combine their respective strengths into a hybrid and collaborative intelligence that can do more than either of its components.
Episode 4: The Terahertzian
Dr. Dev Palmer recounts how he turned an early interest in the vacuum tubes of his guitar amplifiers into a career as an electrical engineer, including his present role as a program manager in DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office. His mission? To push electronic and electromagnetic technology along new frontiers that could lead to more capable radar, electronic warfare, and communications systems, and even to entirely new technologies.
Episode 3: The Semiconductor Whisperer
Dr. Dan Green, a program manager in DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office, discusses the Agency’s work to develop semiconductor materials, among them gallium arsenide and now gallium nitride, that open pathways to both military and civilian technology in categories spanning from electronic warfare to radar to communications.
Episode 2: Space Sentinel
Dr. Lindsay Millard, a program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, discusses the Agency’s Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) program, a key component in the nation’s ability to detect and track space debris and other objects to determine if they will collide with orbiting satellites or impact the Earth.
Episode 1: Molecule Man
Dr. Tyler McQuade, who joined DARPA in 2013 as a program manager in the Agency’s Defense Sciences Office and became that office’s deputy director in January 2017, reveals his vision of accelerating scientists' ability to discover and make a vast variety of new molecules for medical, military, and many other applications.
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