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Cameras that tell you what they see. Computer chips that self-destruct. A processor that mimics the human brain’s neocortex. Authentication systems that analyze a user’s “cognitive fingerprint.” Sound like Star Trek? It’s not. It’s just another day at DARPA.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is one of the most fascinating and secretive parts of the US government. The motto on the front page of the DARPA website is “Creating and Preventing Strategic Surprise,” which perfectly sums up the future research that the group does. Remember the Big Dog? That large, self-balancing robotic dog was funded by DARPA? DARPA was also pretty instrumental in creating the Internet So Who Created The Internet? [Technology Explained] So Who Created The Internet? [Technology Explained] Read More .

Simulating the Brain: SyNAPSE

One of DARPA’s current projects is called “Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics,” or SyNAPSE. The idea behind the program is to create a computer that works on the same principles as the human brain. Current computer processing Today’s Tablets & Tomorrow’s Computers – What Is an ARM Processor? Today’s Tablets & Tomorrow’s Computers – What Is an ARM Processor? If you’ve paid any attention to smartphones and tablets you’ve likely heard of the term "ARM" used to refer to the hardware inside. It’s thrown around left and right, often as a point of differentiation... Read More is extremely inflexible compared to a brain.

While machine learning has come a long way toward creating a computer that can learn independently, processors are still limited to using algorithms that are created by people.

brain future research

In contrast, the brain can deal with complex and incomplete datasets, changing rules, inferential learning, and all of the other real-world things that make effective machine learning extremely difficult.

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Already, DARPA has made significant progress by creating “nanometer-scale electronic synaptic components capable of adapting connection strength between two neurons in a manner analogous to that seen in biological systems,” and is now seeking to work with researchers to create more advanced hardware, architecture, simulation tools, and training environments to discover what the capabilities of this sort of system are and how it could be used in the future.

brain machine complexity

This sort of computing could lead to huge increases in computing power, as the brain is an extremely efficient information processor. The system will also be highly scalable, meaning that it could potentially continue to grow in size and power.

As you can see from the image above, DARPA predicts an extreme shift in the computing landscape because of this technology.

Non-Digital Processing: UPSIDE

If you know much about computing, you’ll know that computers perform calculations in binary notation — a sequence of ones and zeroes — and that’s at the very core of computation. Right? Right. For the most part.

DARPA is working on creating analog computers with transistors that can be in a non-one, non-zero state, performing probabilistic computation. If it’s probabilistic, there’s always a chance that it will be incorrect; so why would DARPA try to make less accurate computers?

In a word, power. Although processing power has become cheap, creating batteries that run those processors is still inefficient and expensive.

computation future research

Probabilistic computation uses probabilistic inference, which could potentially unlock currently impossible processing speeds and power efficiencies for video and image processing, according to a 2012 DARPA news release on Unconventional Processing of Signals for Intelligent Data Exploitation (UPSIDE).

With spy satellites and drones being heavily used around the world for military, industrial, and commercial purposes 7 Industries Drones Are Set to Revolutionize 7 Industries Drones Are Set to Revolutionize Seven industries that are ready and braced to be (mostly positively) impacted – if not revolutionized – by drones. Read More , it only makes sense that DARPA would be looking for ways to make them more efficient.

UPSIDE is using some pretty high-tech gear. According to the DARPA website, the project aims to create “arrays of physics-based devices (nanoscale oscillators may be one example)” that would adapt to inputs, meaning that they wouldn’t need to be programmed Which Programming Language Should You Learn For Software Development? Which Programming Language Should You Learn For Software Development? When starting on the path of programming, it’s important you invest your time wisely in choosing to learn something that will both benefit you in the immediate future with visible results on your platform of... Read More in the sense of the word that we use now — they would just learn what they needed to based on the input they receive.

Self-Destructing Computers: VAPR

The Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program seeks to create electronics that can self-destruct when they receive a specific signal or experience certain environmental conditions.

The military benefit of a program like this should be obvious — every soldier on the battlefield now carries an impressive amount of extremely powerful electronics that the U.S. government doesn’t want falling into enemy hands. What’s the obvious solution? Self-destruction!

self-destructing electronics

DARPA has already created some tiny biocompatible electronics that dissolve in water and could be used for medicinal purposes — fighting infections, for example. Dissolvable, biodegradable devices have been created that are used to prevent infections at surgical sites; they dissolve into the body and perform the same function as more typical antibiotics.

Of course, making an implantable device Plugging In Your Brain and Body - The Future Of Implanted Computers Plugging In Your Brain and Body - The Future Of Implanted Computers With the current trend of technical innovation and advancement, now is a good time to explore the state of the art in computer-human technologies. Read More that dissolves in water and one that turns to dust on command are in totally different magnitudes of difficulty, but IBM was recently awarded a significant contract to find a way to do exactly that.

Behavioral Analysis: DCAPS

Detection and Computational Analysis of Psychological Signals (DCAPS) is future research that “aims to develop novel analytical tools to assess psychological status of warfighters in the hopes of improving psychological health awareness and enabling them to seek timely help.”

In short, DARPA hopes that an opt-in monitoring program will be able to automatically search for the signs of PTSD or other psychological issues in soldiers after they come home from deployment.

maloney brain

The program will monitor text and voice communications,  sleeping and eating patterns, social interactions, online behaviors, facial expressions, body posture, and body movement to develop an overall psychological health metric. It won’t give specific diagnoses, but it will identify signals that could be indicative of risk for psychological trauma or health issues.

Sound scary? Fortunately, the plan is to make this a totally voluntary program, and the data will be stored in a highly secure framework; it’ll also be controllable by participants, presumably allowing them to monitor and delete any of their data if they so choose.

…And a Whole Bunch of Other Cool Things

These four programs are just a tiny fraction of the work that DARPA is doing on advanced computing. They’re at the forefront of natural language processing, quantum science, machine learning, and massive data analysis.

If you ever want to read about programs that will totally blow your mind, head on over to the I2O (Information Innovation Office) or MTO (Microsystems Technology Office) pages on the DARPA website and check out their projects.

A few of my personal favorites are Active Authentication, EXCALIBUR, MADCAT, and Mind’s Eye. Check them out! Which DARPA projects do you find most interesting or unusual?

Image credits: DARPA, Iwan Gabovitch via Flickr, RogDel via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Dennis Primm
    July 15, 2015 at 2:23 am

    I wish I would have seen this article sooner! Apparently DARPA has shut off the faucet. When I attempted to check out the links I got an "Access Denied" error message.

    Darn, I was really wanting to check out Minds Eye, EXCALIBUR and MADCAT!!!

    Please try to get them to turn the sluice gates again!

    Thank you for this great article!!!

    • Dann Albright
      July 25, 2015 at 2:58 pm

      Thanks for pointing that out! I didn't know that they'd done that. It looks like if you Google "DARPA [program name]" you can still get some information from other pages on their site and occasionally through other sites (NIST has a page on MADCAT, for example). Try giving that a shot and see if you can find what you're looking for. Hopefully this is just a temporary thing.

      Glad you liked the article—I had a lot of fun writing it!

  2. Brad Arnold
    June 24, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    Mind's Eye is by far the most intriguing, because it seeks to create visual intelligence. Given the large amount of data generated by cameras, there would be a very very practical applications.

    • Dann A
      June 25, 2014 at 7:16 am

      I agree; the practical applications of Mind's Eye are pretty staggering. That's one of the technologies that DARPA's working on that could potentially have a huge positive impact. However, I did just finish writing an article about mass surveillance, so it makes me a bit nervous. :-)

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Ryan D
    June 24, 2014 at 12:20 am

    That behavioral analysis piece is a fascinating technology and probably could be really effective in helping returning soldiers. On the flip side, it's unnerving to think what could be done with mainstream data...not that the NSA isn't already doing this of course...

    • Dann A
      June 24, 2014 at 7:44 am

      I had the same thought—it could be really useful in a lot of different ways, but DARPA the D in DARPA is for "Defense," so they have really close ties to the DoD and, I'm sure, a lot of other military- and intelligence-related agencies. You never really know who could have come up with the idea in the first place, or where it'll end up if it comes to. Kinda' scary!

      Still can't help marveling at the technology, though. These guys do some amazing stuff.

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