The connection between MIT and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) over the decades has been a strong one. On Tuesday, Nov. 29, the two came together again to explore the current and future possibilities for expanding the U.S. manufacturing industry through greater investment in advancing technology. DARPA Director Regina Dugan and Deputy Director Kaigham Gabriel, introduced by MIT President Susan Hockfield and Department of Political Science Head Rick Locke, spoke in Bartos Theatre to a large audience, mostly from the MIT community, about past and current DARPA projects that are advancing our collective scientific knowledge not only as it applies to defense, but to the daily life of the American people.
The presentation revisited the progress of invention from Da Vinci’s flying machines to "Top Gun," from the simple telephone to texting, from the gargantuan mechanical “thinking machines” of the early 20th century to the recent overwhelming expansion of social media. As Dugan and Gabriel both reiterated, the advancement of technology throughout history has been so dramatic and so unpredictable that even if a prophet could have read the future accurately, his vision would sound so fantastic and far-fetched as to not even be believed. Dugan highlighted several erroneous technology predictions from history, one of the most amusing of which was Digital Equipment Corp founder Ken Olson’s now infamous declaration in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Dugan focused also on the importance of a revitalized national manufacturing mentality. Of DARPA’s perspective on technology development, she said, “We can’t predict the future, but we can build it.” She stressed that the question was not whether manufacturing was essential, but rather how best we can revitalize it.
Both Dugan and Gabriel also addressed the budgetary folly of the Department of Defense’s “buy then make” strategy. They suggested that with a renewed focus on innovation and commitment to weeding out inefficiency and waste, that strategy could be reversed into a much more sustainable “make then buy” approach. If current cost trends continue, Dugan said, by 2064 it will require the entire defense budget to purchase one airplane, and by 2120 that same airplane will require the entire American Gross National Product (GNP).
Dugan also explained DARPA’s recent initiatives to “Democratize Design,” crowd-sourcing development plans for equipment to harness the “amplifying power" of innovation and competitiveness. A design competition hosted in Phoenix, Ariz., for a new combat support vehicle generated more functional designs in a drastically shorter time span than the traditional DoD contract methods. Similarly, Dugan praised the Tetris-like online game Foldit for providing an environment where hardcore gamers could apply their problem-solving talents to protein-folding, and in so doing overcome challenges that had baffled experienced biochemists for years.
Gabriel closed with a compelling observation, “The 19th century was about manipulating energy, the 20th century was about manipulating information, and the 21st century will be about manipulating matter.” Indeed, DARPA seems to be charging forward with innovative ideas not only to solve the problems of today, but of tomorrow as well.