How I learned to stop worrying and love DARPA

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As I arrived at the Pomona Fairplex in Southern California to attend the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge I was surprised to be greeted by the smiling face of director Arati Prabhakar on a flatscreen TV. Prabhakar wanted to welcome me — and other visitors — and to explain her organization’s mission. She did so on a loop. DARPA, she said, makes early investments in technologies that change the world, solving national security problems, with successful commercial applications a frequent result.

I say I was surprised because I hadn’t expected DARPA to be quite so self-promotional. Growing up in the American ‘burb bloat in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I managed to remain ignorant about the work of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

My adolescence coincided with the emergence of the commercial internet, and I learned the names of the brilliant businessmen and companies who had put all that information and recreation at our fingertips. But I knew nothing of the LSD-fueled architects of those technologies, their relationships with academia and the Department of Defense, the controversy stemming from those relationships amid the Vietnam anti-war movement. Nobody had quite gotten the story together to the point of teaching it in school. I was reading other stuff.

I certainly didn’t know that the products I was using were the result of a two-pronged interest in the power of computers to a) augment the human animal and b) surpass it.

I’ve since caught up a bit on my reading. And over the interceding years I’ve been fleetingly aware of certain DARPA-related projects and technologies that have chilled me to the bone, most of them involving the manipulation of mouse brains. DARPA itself had remained occult and mysterious, to me at least. And now here was its director acting like some kind of Disney greeter.

Was this a trap?

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