5 Questions for DARPA Director Steve Walker

Go to Future of Defense Innovation
posted: 7/30/2019
Hertz Staff
listed in Hertz Foundation

The mission of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — DARPA — is “to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security,” and in its 61-year history those investments have delivered remarkable returns and helped maintain the technological preeminence of the United States. Most well known for being a part of the Department of Defense charged with developing advanced military capabilities, DARPA has also catalyzed new technologies that have reshaped the world in ways that benefit all humanity, including laying the groundwork for the Internet. As the agency noted in a report to Congress last year, “Perhaps the most important effect of DARPA’s work is to change people’s minds as to what is possible.”

This week, Dr. Steven H. Walker, director of DARPA, will join the Hertz Foundation at our annual Summer Workshop to discuss the agency’s role in the research ecosystem and its future priorities. Walker oversees nearly 100 program managers who apply DARPA’s roughly $3.5B budget to paradigm-shifting science and engineering challenges. As he said on the occasion of DARPA’s 60th anniversary last year: “From self-driving cars, to humanoid robots, directed energy and artificial intelligence to synthetic biology, distributed space architectures, hypersonics and quantum sensing, the investments the agency is making today will be pivotal in delivering military and economic advantage to America far into the century.”

Before Walker joins us at the Hertz Summer Workshop, the Hertz Foundation asked him five questions about the role of DARPA research in an increasingly globalized world.

Hertz Foundation: Do you believe DARPA’s relationship with academic researchers has changed over the first two decades of the 21st century, and how do you feel it should evolve?

Dr. Steve Walker: The past 19 years have been an exciting time for academic research due in large part to a proliferation of funding opportunities, expanded areas of research, and new possibilities for collaboration. While for decades the government had the lead in creating advanced technologies, that dynamic has shifted some as private industry has raised its profile as a source of innovation and research funding. Government-sponsored research remains unquestionably vital to long-term success — DARPA, in particular, develops the forward-leaning technologies on which future capabilities and industries are built — but the commercial sector has stepped up its game and is getting better about tapping breakthroughs by academic researchers in a timely manner.

That said, DARPA is far from relinquishing its role as a major funder of academic research. In fact, we’re actively seeking to expand the pool of schools we fund to maintain the flow of new ideas. Since 2014 with the establishment of our Biological Technologies Office, we’ve been working with a largely new set of players who work at the frontiers of neurotechnology, infectious disease countermeasures, genome editing, and biomanufacturing. Even more recently, our Microsystems Technology Office launched the Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI) to focus academic, commercial industry, and government research on maintaining U.S. dominance in semiconductor technology. Just last month, we held our second ERI Summit to bring together a wide range of researchers and stakeholders, evaluate progress, and map out the road ahead. It was a wonderful event and it showcased how DARPA catalyzes valuable new relationships across sectors and makes the foundational investments that enable future capabilities.

My agency is good at creating those types of public-private partnerships, but there are also other ways we structure our operations to make it easier and more advantageous for colleges and universities to work with us. First, we’re committed to designating research as fundamental whenever possible, meaning researchers are free to publish and share their results without restrictions. Second, the researchers we fund retain ownership of their intellectual property, leaving them free to commercialize their work and seek outside investment. Third, we actively engage potential end users in government and industry to find pathways for technology transition. And fourth, we’re constantly identifying ways to make it simpler to work with us, as with our Disruptioneering, Artificial Intelligence, and Microsystems Exploration topics in which we combine a simplified contracting process and compressed periods-of-performance with awards of up to $1 million to quickly establish the feasibility of new concepts. Our enduring appeal to researchers is that we’re the government agency partner willing to fund high-risk, high-payoff projects that change the world.

“We’re committed to designating research as fundamental whenever possible, meaning researchers are free to publish and share their results without restrictions.”

HF: What do you see as the greatest opportunities for new international scientific collaboration, and what should be DARPA’s role be in catalyzing these opportunities?

Walker: There are plenty of technology spaces where the United States can and should work with international partners. This is especially true in areas where there is a need for standards, such as space operations and satellite servicing; for transparency, such as genome editing; or for common cause, such as pandemic preparedness and food security. DARPA’s role varies case by case for each of those examples.

For satellite servicing, we recognized that satellite operations in geosynchronous orbit will become increasingly complex, and are already extraordinarily expensive. When you consider how much of our global terrestrial infrastructure depends on properly functioning satellites, you can appreciate the need for nations to work together and agree on certain standards. We’re developing a capability for on-orbit satellite repair, and we also funded creation of an independent forum where industry can collaborate with government about on-orbit servicing. Participants will leverage best practices to develop non-binding, consensus-derived technical and safety standards for servicing providers and clients.

In the case of genome editing, this is a technology area that seemingly in the blink of an eye moved from a slow, expensive, niche science to a widely available set of tools with new capabilities being unveiled each month. DARPA witnessed that transformation, and rather than jumping on the bandwagon of seeking applications for genome editors, decided to invest in safety mechanisms that could enable editors to be used responsibly in a controlled manner. Our Safe Genes program funds researchers around the world to gain a baseline understanding of how genome editors function at various physical and temporal scales, and over a range of environmental conditions, and to develop a range of tools to precisely control gene edits, turn them on and off under certain conditions, or even reverse their effects.

For many DARPA-funded technologies, we embrace transparency and sharing data both to demonstrate that we’re a responsible actor and to help accelerate solutions to global challenges. However, one area of concern in this regard is the increase of foreign investment in technologies with DARPA origins. We support commercial spinout of DARPA-funded research, and believe it’s necessary for more powerful capabilities to become available to the government in the future at a lower cost, but there is a concerning trend of foreign investors taking control of some of the work we originally funded and then locking up the IP. That’s an area that the U.S. Government across the board is addressing now, and DARPA is figuring out how to keep the balance we need to remain successful in our mission.

“We embrace transparency and sharing data both to demonstrate that we’re a responsible actor and to help accelerate solutions to global challenges.”

HF: With new technologies, ethical issues in science have multiplied and gained tremendous visibility. As this continues, do you foresee ethical issues arising that will be uniquely challenging?

Walker: It’s DARPA’s mission to push the frontiers of science and technology, shine a light on the dark places from where technological surprise could emerge, and develop powerful new capabilities for national security. In pursuing that mission, we will necessarily encounter sources of ethical concern, and we encourage a rigorous evaluation of the issues that new technologies might raise. Many of our research programs benefit from the advice of independent ethical and legal experts who work with us from the time we first conceive of a new program concept. They help us to understand the ethics landscape and structure our research responsibly throughout the program lifecycle. For example, in the case of many of our biology programs, we adhere to the principle that no edits or modifications to an individual should be permanent. We have a program that is building technology to temporarily modulate gene expression to offer better protection against threats like ionizing radiation and influenza. By avoiding edits to the underlying DNA, we see an opportunity to increase survivability for troops and first responders without the risks of permanent genetic modifications.

“We adhere to the principle that no edits or modifications to an individual should be permanent.”

We take a similar approach to technologies involving artificial intelligence and machine autonomy. We see the direction technology is moving and know that AI will be a key ingredient of future military power, but we also know that current AI systems cannot and should not be trusted with questions of life and death. I’ve steered DARPA’s investments into technologies that increase the value and applicability of AI across a range of missions, but that also build human trust in its results, support meaningful human-machine teaming so that human operators can stay involved in situations that unfold at machine speeds, and allow AI to function more robustly when situations change or when adversaries intentionally try to fool it.

HF: The US military recognizes climate change as a threat to national security. Have we fully tapped DARPA’s potential to address this challenge, and are there new roles you’d like DARPA to play in the future?

Walker: The Department of Defense has been attuned to the potential dangers from climate change for some time and has begun taking steps to mitigate its effects. At DARPA, I think we need to examine climate change in the context of strategic surprise, which is a core part of our mission. First, we can look at the potential impact of climate change on the military’s operational readiness. What aspects of readiness might be affected by extreme changes in weather or terrain, and how can we advance technological solutions for those so that our troops and equipment are always ready when we need them? Second, how will the effects of climate change impact stability and security, and are there solutions we can advance to prevent new sources of instability from arising? Many people think of the military only in the context of fighting and winning wars, but it’s even more important to prevent conflict in the first place, and many DARPA efforts support that goal.

“We need to examine climate change in the context of strategic surprise, which is a core part of our mission.”

DARPA already has numerous investments in countermeasures against pandemic disease. They’re relevant today because our deployed troops and the homeland are already at risk from diseases like Ebola, dengue, and influenza, but we also see the threat of pandemics growing in the future as weather patterns change, globalization increases, and new parts of the world become exposed to diseases that weren’t previously a concern. We’re especially focused on technologies to rapidly detect new health threats, and then contain them at the source when possible — typically in animal or insect reservoirs of disease — or deliver firebreaks that stop an outbreak of disease in people from growing into a pandemic.

We’re also investing in food security. Just like humans, plants get diseases, and the number of threat vectors is growing, along with the speed at which new threats can spread. We created a program called Insect Allies to develop the capability to rapidly convey protective traits to mature plants already in the field so that our food security is not jeopardized by unanticipated plant diseases or pests, by prolonged drought or flooding, or even by deliberate biological attack. Insect Allies tools could preempt potential sources of conflict around the world, and ensure that our domestic food supply is safe.

HF: Looking ahead, is there one game-changing innovation rooted to DARPA that you’re particularly excited to see blossom?

Walker: I’m fascinated by the potential of genome editing and synthetic biology. I often talk about how DARPA investments can shape new fields of research, and that is especially true with our Safe Genes and Living Foundries programs. With Safe Genes, we’re creating tools so that genome editors might be used safely and responsibly, and that opens up possibilities across a wide range of fields. Researchers are exploring obvious applications in precision medicine, preventing the spread of infectious disease, and food security, but there’s also this great bio-manufacturing space where we can engineer cells to produce valuable molecules and materials that are either more cost effective than traditional sources or that offer improved material properties. As an engineer, I think it’s incredible that biology could deliver us a whole new palette of materials. Through Living Foundries, DARPA originally invested in platform technologies that moved synthetic biology from an expensive, slow-moving, artisan process to an automated process enabled by robotics and machine learning, and now industry is beginning to embrace the capabilities those technologies offer. I’m excited to see what comes next.

“As an engineer, I think it’s incredible that biology could deliver us a whole new palette of materials.”