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Pulling Back The Curtain On DARPA, The Pentagon's 'Brain'


We are going to consider now a highly secret branch of the U.S. military, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known more simply as DARPA. Our colleague, Steve Inskeep, brings us this look into an agency that aims to transform fantasy into reality.


DARPA hires scientists and defense contractors to develop new weapons and new technology. Annie Jacobsen tried to find out what they're up to. She wrote a history of the agency called "The Pentagon's Brain." It explores an agency that is known and not known at all. It's unknown because so much of its work is classified. It's known because much of its work creeps eventually into civilian life, including the Internet. When the government needed emergency help with vaccines, it turned to DARPA.

ANNIE JACOBSEN: It takes roughly nine months to produce and market a new vaccine. So if you have an emerging disease that all of a sudden appears, that's a long time to get vaccines into the population. DARPA challenged itself to transform this model. And in 2013, it did. It created 10 million vaccines for the H1N1 influenza virus in one month.

INSKEEP: The agency that saves lives and helps the military take them began under a slightly different name. It was 1958. The Soviet Union had just beaten the United States into space. The new agency was told to drive American technology forward. And during the Vietnam War, it did.

JACOBSEN: DARPA tried to create a sensor system in the Vietnamese jungle so that they could track insurgents on the trail.

INSKEEP: Those sensors became the ancestors of sensors in everyday life, like the motion sensor that turns on the lights when you enter a room. Today, DARPA technology often involves information. Some years ago, DARPA made news by seeking to design software that would try to predict the next terror attack. During the war in Iraq, it sent people looking for information. Anthropologists were hired to travel with U.S. soldiers as part of a program called Map Human Terrain.

JACOBSEN: So imagine going out into the field and interviewing different tribal members and then inputting that information into an electronic handheld device, which then gets sent to an information center. So you have a giant electronic surveillance system, paralleling the hearts-and-minds effort on the ground, for the Pentagon to try and understand and ultimately control populations abroad.

INSKEEP: So the concept sounds to me a little bit like what the Centers for Disease Control might do. They gather lots of information from lots of doctors, lots of hospitals. And they try to track the movement of diseases. It sounds like the Pentagon was sending anthropologists out to gather information and ultimately computerize all of that so that somehow, you could track anticipated combat or social trends that were of concern.

JACOBSEN: That is what was being done. The broader concern is, are these anthropologists being sent into the field believing that they're serving one purpose when they're actually serving another?

INSKEEP: What would the other purpose have been then?

JACOBSEN: Surveillance - because most anthropologists will tell you that it's not their position to try to win a war. It's their profession to learn about a culture. And so that doesn't square up with the goal of dominating and winning a war.

INSKEEP: Has DARPA gone on to deploy anthropologists in places other than Afghanistan and Iraq?

JACOBSEN: Presently, they're all over the world, in places like Mexico and Africa, mapping zones that do not yet have conflicts in them. These are called phase zero conflict zones.

INSKEEP: Not only that. DARPA has been, in effect, mapping the human brain. One of the most intriguing programs was one that Annie Jacobsen could not learn very much about.

JACOBSEN: Of the 2.5 million Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 300,000 of them came home with traumatic brain injury. DARPA initiated a series of programs to help cognitive functioning, to repair some of this damage. And those programs center around putting brain chips inside the tissue of the brain. Since the 1950s, the Pentagon has been pursuing artificial intelligence. And we keep coming up against a barrier. And what my sources suggested to me was that the key to artificial intelligence lies inside the human brain. And the suggestion is that these brain-chip programs that DARPA keeps very classified are, in fact, prototypes to push artificial intelligence to becoming a reality.

INSKEEP: Oh, so what is publicly known is that the U.S. military, commendably, is trying to find some way through computer technology to help people with brain injury. But your concern is that whatever is being discovered through that process might be turned to other and more secret ends.

JACOBSEN: And this is a concern that has been voiced to me by many knowledgeable scientists who have worked with DARPA over the years.

INSKEEP: Is DARPA then living in this space where we could destroy ourselves while defending ourselves?

JACOBSEN: That is always the conundrum of the military-industrial complex. And that leads us to the questions that have to do with artificial intelligence and the Pentagon's plans for hunter-killer drones. And those are drones that ultimately can act on their own, where you can - and this is a poor man's example - but show a drone a photograph and say, go kill this man and report back to me. And when you look at the documents that the Pentagon is producing for its plans 20, 25 years out, DARPA is leading those efforts.

INSKEEP: Has DARPA been a force for good on balance?

JACOBSEN: In all of its 57 years, we have never been taken by technological surprise as a nation. And sometimes I wonder what it would be like if, for example, cloning or artificial intelligence - both of which are being pursued around the world - if an enemy nation announced that they had broken that technological barrier. Would we feel taken by surprise? And would we then say, where was DARPA? That's why I think it's important to be able to give credit where credit is due, certainly in the position that DARPA has taken in leading the nation in terms of science and technology.

INSKEEP: Annie Jacobsen is the author of "The Pentagon's Brain." Thanks very much.

JACOBSEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.