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Voices from DARPA

Author: DARPA

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DARPA’s podcast series, "Voices from DARPA," offers a revealing and informative window on the minds of the Agency's program managers. In each episode, a program manager from one of DARPA’s six technical offices—Biological Technologies, Defense Sciences, Information Innovation, Microsystems Technology, Strategic Technology, and Tactical Technology—will discuss in informal and personal terms why they are at DARPA and what they are up to. The goal of "Voices from DARPA" is to share with listeners some of the institutional know-how, vision, process, and history that together make the “secret sauce” DARPA has been adding to the Nation’s innovation ecosystem for nearly 60 years. On another level, we at DARPA just wanted to share the pleasure we all have every day—in the elevator, in the halls, in our meeting rooms—as we learn from each other and swap ideas and strive to change what’s possible.
42 Episodes
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  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Whitney Mason, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Microsystems Technology Office, explains how she became smitten with the science and technology of imaging. Even as a child, Mason was curious about the world, wondering about everything, she says, from why the sky is blue to what makes concrete hard. But what ended up inspiring her most and cementing in her professional trajectory was the fantastic ways that animals see, including the ability to see in the night using infrared light. “A soldier needs to see at night,” Mason says. “Or see through dust. Or find homemade explosives. Or find things really far away. Or track things.” That list of warfighters’ sensory needs explains a lot about the bold portfolio of projects Mason oversees at DARPA. She is out to provide warfighters with some of the smartest, most discerning, most versatile imaging sensors ever devised. As she explains in the podcast, this will require designing into the sensors brain-like functions of identifying what really requires attention in a complex scene of mostly benign features, preprocessing huge amounts of data the ways eyes do before sending information brainward via the optic nerves, and purging raw sensor data of extraneous portions that can be confusing to both people and computers. One of her programs, which aims to shrink otherwise unwieldly infrared imaging systems into much smaller and lighter packages, challenges materials researchers with a task equivalent to reforming a brittle ceramic dinner plate into the shape of cup. That’s just a taste of the tough problems her projects' research teams are working on. Challenging as her job might be, Mason seems to be just where she wants to be. “I have had very fun jobs,” Mason says, “but this is the funnest.”  
Episode 41: The AI Tutor

Episode 41: The AI Tutor

2021-03-1135:551

  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Bruce Draper, a program manager since 2019 in the agency’s Information Innovation Office, explains how his fascination with the ways people reason, think, and believe what they believe steered him into a lifelong embrace of computer science and artificial intelligence (AI) research. At DARPA, Draper—who says he welcomes working at a place where an academic scientist like himself can influence the direction of entire fields of research—oversees a portfolio of programs that collectively are about making artificial intelligence learn faster, less prone to mistakes and flawed inferences, and less vulnerable to misuse and deception. One of his programs aims to imbue computers with nonverbal communication abilities so that AIs collaborating with people can integrate a human being’s facial and gestural cues with written and oral ones. Another program seeks to make machine-learning algorithms into quicker studies that require simpler data sets to learn how to identify objects, actions, and other categories of phenomena. Two of Draper’s programs fall into the category of “adversarial AI,” in which, for example, those with ill intent might try to deceive an AI with “poisoned data” that could lead to inappropriate inferences and actions. Yet another program, a new one, aims to develop AIs that can serve as competent guides for people in the midst of tasks, say, fixing the brakes on a military aircraft or preparing tiramisu for a dinner party. “It’s sort of the do-it-yourself revolution on steroids,” says Draper. AI holds exciting possibilities, he adds, but it will take close attention to privacy concerns, built-in biases, and other hidden perils for AI to become the technology we want it to be for us all.  
Welcome to Sounds of Innovation, an intermittent feature of our Voices from DARPA podcast. Rather than hearing the voices of program managers, which is normally what you get in a Voices from DARPA podcast, in each Sounds of Innovation episode, you will hear some of the soundscapes of research and development … and learn just a little bit about the world-changing capabilities those sounds could lead to. See if you can guess how the sounds were produced before our podcast host reveals their origin.            
  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Seth Cohen, a program manager since 2019 in the agency’s Biological Technologies Office, takes listeners on a scientific journey that began with childhood fossil-hunting forays with his biology-teacher dad and is unfolding now in his oversight of three ambitious programs that center on some of humanity’s most pressing needs. Two of these take on the relentlessly evolving public-health threats that viral and bacterial pathogens pose. Another program is immersed in the challenge of the increasing scarcity of potable water. If Seth has it his way, these programs will deliver 1) a new strategy for fighting viral infections; 2) a powerful anti-bacterial framework that will recruit our bodies’ home-made, protective molecular means to stave off the emerging public-health catastrophe of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections; and 3) technologies for extracting water from the atmosphere in regions where water is scarce. Seth also shares his government-service experiences by which he has come to know the value of science policy in moving society toward badly-needed solutions. He finishes his story with a pitch to graduate students and others in the innovation ecosystems to embrace exciting and consequential roles in the government R&D landscape that they might not know about, including ones at DARPA. Says Seth in support of that advice, “DARPA has been…one of the best places I could ever imagine working.” When he is not uncovering new marvels of cellular chemistry or opening pathways to new technologies, Seth, a fan and amateur historian of muscle cars, just might be seen tooling around in his 1963 Corvette Stingray convertible.  
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, John Waterston, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Strategic Technology Office, lets listeners in on his oceanic immersions both as a naval officer and a technology developer. Now a commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, John offers snapshots of living, working, and serving on our nation’s nuclear submarines before describing his current work at DARPA to develop technologies to better understand, monitor, and navigate the planet’s most prevalent environment—the oceans. In one of his ambitious programs, John seeks to deliver what has been a coveted but elusive capability—the equivalent of GPS that operates even in the deep ocean. In a related program, John explains how very low-frequency (VLF) electromagnetic signals from lightning that occurs relentlessly around the world can become a key to a back-up positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) system in case our must-have GPS goes down. And in perhaps his most audacious program, the Ocean of Things, he is assembling what amounts to an ocean-scale nervous systems comprising tens of thousands of floating sensors, opening pathways to an unprecedentedly fine-grained understanding of what is happening in vast ocean environments. Says John about the ocean, “it’s so immense, covering 70% of the Earth’s surface, yet even with all of the ships, all of the aircraft, all of the satellites, and all of the existing sensors, we are severely undersampling this environment.” He has made it his mission to fill in that data shortfall, which he says could significantly improve weather forecasting for the benefit of both military and civilian sectors.
  Welcome to Sounds of Innovation, a new intermittent feature of our Voices from DARPA podcast. Rather than hearing the voices of program managers, which is normally what you get in a Voices from DARPA podcast, in each Sounds of Innovation episode, you will hear some of the soundscapes of research and development…and learn just a little bit about what new world-changing capabilities those sounds could lead to.  
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, William (Bill) Carter, a program manager since 2018 in the agency’s Defense Sciences Office, recounts his scientific journey. It began with childhood wonder amidst star-blazoned New Mexico skies and high-school summer jobs at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and has taken him now, literally, to leading edges of materials science and engineering. His portfolio of programs at DARPA aims to deliver materials that increase the practical range of hypersonic vehicles by breaking the “heat barrier,” that is, by taming the extreme heat flows on surfaces of hypersonic platforms; thermoelectric materials and systems for quiet, portable power generation in contested areas; and nanoscale-engineered materials suitable for such jobs as replacing tendons and printing electronics as easily as laser-printing a photograph. Says Carter, “I have absolutely unbounded optimism about the potential for science to solve today’s most important problems and I think materials science can contribute.”
  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Tom Rondeau, a program manager since 2016 — first in the agency’s Microsystems Technology Office before switching over this year to the Strategic Technology Office — takes listeners on a kaleidoscopic tour of his efforts to usher wireless technology into a new era. Anchored in an emerging technology arena known as software-defined radio (SDR), his programs dive deeply into the pathbreaking hardware, software, computational techniques, power efficiencies, and innovation communities that it will take to do more with the electromagnetic spectrum than ever before. Think of every cellphone call ever made, of satellite communication, and now of billions of devices communicating wirelessly via apps and the internet. And now think beyond all of that. The tattoos of Maxwell’s Equations — which famously capture the behavior of electromagnetic waves as discerned by the 19th century physicist James Clerk Maxwell — on Tom’s forearms reveal just how devoted he is to his technology-development mission. “I look down at those every day and have a moment of awe about what we have been able to do,” he tells listeners. And then he has another moment of awe as he imagines how much more he might be able to pull off as a DARPA program manager.  
  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Stacie Williams, a program manager since 2019 in the agency’s Tactical Technology Office, reveals how a lifelong love of optical and photonic phenomena, beginning with fireflies during her childhood, is now unfolding in her stewardship of ambitious light-and-optics-centric programs at DARPA. One of these, the Deformable Mirror (DeMi) program, recently reached a milestone with the placement from the International Space Station of a dime-sized deformable mirror on a loaf-sized CubeSat platform. The goal of DeMi is to deliver cheaper, lighter, smaller telescope mirrors—in the form of a microelectromechanical system (MEMS)—that could open unprecedented options for space-based ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) technology that, in Stacie’s words, “helps us understand what’s going on with a space eyeview.” In another optics-tech effort under Stacie’s wing, researchers are learning how to design so-called metamaterials—with engineered microstructures that manipulate electromagnetic wavelengths—that also could greatly simplify, lighten, and cheapen far more massive, complex, and expensive conventional telescopes. In the podcast, Stacie also recounts her work beyond technology as a champion of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education for economically disadvantaged communities.  
  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Matt Turek, a program manager since 2018 in the agency’s Information Innovation Office, discusses his portfolio of artificial intelligence (AI) programs that could not be more timely. Two of these programs map onto this harrowing moment in history where one of the most precious assets we can have as a society — trust in media and in various channels and modes of communications — is evaporating. Another program gets at a different kind of crucial trust: human trust in the AI tools that are becoming embedded and influential in our everyday lives and in government responsibilities including national security and defense. And in yet another program, Turek is asking the research talent out there to build one of the most powerful components of human intelligence into artificial intelligence: common sense. Turek says he hopes to encourage AI researchers to, in his words, “work together in ways that aren’t currently happening or maybe they didn’t envision happening.”  
  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Air Force Lt. Col. C. David Lewis, a program manager since 2018 in the agency’s Defense Sciences Office, takes listeners on a tour of the amazingly diverse portfolio of programs he oversees. The foci of these range from the deep math underlying optimization challenges, such as planning complex routes and managing supply chains, to using untapped signals in the atmosphere as indicators of both natural and human activities on the planet’s surface. He also shares a timely chronicle of his navigation, as a Black person, through the individual and systemic racism that confronted him as he pursued his love of science (which his sixth-grade teacher and key educational ally recognized) and later his ambition to become a fighter pilot (and even an astronaut), a physicist, and then to land what he calls his “dream job” as a DARPA program manager. Amidst the vexing challenges to fully open educational and professional opportunities to all Americans, David has a forwarding-looking message for listeners. “We are going to evolve,” he says. “It’s important for all Americans now to think about what they want the future to look like.”  
Episode 31: Science 2.0

Episode 31: Science 2.0

2020-08-1734:272

  In this thematic episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, three program managers discuss the possibility that emerging technologies in the arena of artificial intelligence (AI) are converging toward an “artificial-science” toolset that could open an era we might designate as Science 2.0. The prospect of AI scientists making Nobel-prize-caliber discoveries is not around the corner, but it is a distinct possibility for the future, suggests program manager Jiangying Zhou of the agency’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO). On the way toward that ideal, adds program manager Joshua Elliott of the Information Innovation Office (I2O), we are likely to rely on scientifically-minded AI tools to pump up the efficiency of scientific discovery and to tap into the vast and growing reservoirs of data, which biological minds might not be as suited to make sense of as AI ones. For Bartlett Russell, also of DSO, perhaps the most important advance during the evolution toward a Science 2.0 era will reside in the use of AI tools that enable more people than ever to embrace the scientific enterprise. The more minds doing science, she says, the more discovery we can expect.  
  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Dr. John Burke, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Microsystems Technology Office (MTO), goes deep, quantum-mechanics deep. The miniaturized, affordable, and ultrastable atomic clocks he hopes to make possible would kick in if the GPS system were to go down due to natural or adversarial actions. Such clocks could keep the military machine viable while also preserving or even enhancing the operation of civilian must-haves ranging from financial transactions to ridesharing (think Uber and Lyft). Burke has teams of researchers pursuing magnificently sensitive magnetometers for detecting objects, materials, and activities otherwise hidden underground, underwater, or behind bone. Among these sensors’ potential applications is real-time, in-field diagnostics and monitoring of concussions, whether in battlefield or sports field settings. These and other sensing capabilities Burke is fostering are based largely on the quantum-mechanical ways that atoms behave (e.g., the nuclear oscillations that serve at the invariant ticks of atomic clocks) or respond to signals in the world (e.g., faint magnetic fields from brains or buried ordnance). The overall goal of this quantum-mechanical finessing, Burke says, is to “peer around the curtain to see more and more of everything around us.”  
  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Dr. Michael Fiddy, a program manager since 2016 in the agency’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), takes listeners on a whirlwind tour of his programs. They all share a common thread, which stems from Fiddy's lifelong interest in how light — electromagnetic (EM) energy, more generally — interacts with matter. At DARPA, he has expressed that interest by challenging researchers to investigate whether cells interact with one another via EM signals; how it might be possible to use low-frequency EM radiation to see through just about anything (including metal); and how precisely engineered surfaces might tap into quantum mechanical phenomena (Casimir forces) in the vacuum of space in a quest for fuel-less propulsion technology. As Fiddy points out in the podcast, “We have been doing science for a few hundred years and there still is an awful lot that we don’t know.”  
  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Dr. Timothy Chung, a program manager since 2016 in the agency's Tactical Technology Office, delves into his robotics and autonomous technology programs – the Subterranean (SubT) Challenge and OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET). From robot soccer to live-fly experimentation programs involving dozens of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), he explains how he aims to assist humans heading into unknown environments via advances in collaborative autonomy and robotics. The SubT Challenge focuses on the underground – human-made tunnels, the urban underground, and natural cave networks. Teams from around the world vie for prizes via Systems (physical) and Virtual competitions, with air and ground platforms attempting to rapidly map, navigate, and search the subterranean domain.The OFFSET program envisions small-unit infantry forces seamlessly teaming with swarms of even hundreds of (UASs) and/or small unmanned ground systems. The program combines emerging technologies in swarm autonomy and human-swarm teaming. Chung shares how he learned to see things not as impossible, but rather un-possible because, “it's not that it can't be done. It just hasn't been done yet.”  
  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Mark Wrobel, a program manager since 2019 in the agency’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), chronicles progress in the SIGMA+ program and its potential near-term relevance to monitoring the environment for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The now-completed predecessor program, SIGMA, delivered a sensor and analysis system for detecting imminent nuclear and radiological threats in complex settings like cities, stadiums, and travel hubs. That system has been transitioning into deployments. The charge of the SIGMA+ program is to expand the threat-detection system’s abilities to include an extensive range of chemical, explosive, and biological agents. To avoid costly false alarms and potentially lethal false negatives (missed detections), the technology must be able to reliably discern actual threats from the myriad benign nuclear, radiological, chemical, and biological signals that typically are present in any given location. As Wrobel puts it, “We are trying to move detection to the left of boom.”  
  In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Eric Van Gieson, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO), recounts how a boyhood fascination with DARPA ultimately led to his current role overseeing a portfolio of envelope-pushing programs. These include a program that seeks new diagnostic tools for perhaps the earliest-possible detection of exposure to pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19; an effort to identify and leverage the biomolecular bases underlying optimal performance in such roles as piloting aircraft and participating in special forces missions; research toward new personal-protection technologies that combine advanced featherweight fabrics with designed, bio-based agents applied directly to the body where they can neutralize injurious chemical and biological agents before they can do damage; and a bold biomedical strategy that stands a chance of replacing some medicine-based treatments (for conditions ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to post-traumatic stress disorder) with treatments based on the electrical stimulation of the peripheral nervous system, particularly the far-reaching vagus nerve.  
  In this episode of Voices from DARPA, we turn again to Dr. Anne Fischer, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), this time to learn how she has been swerving two of her programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of those programs, Accelerating Molecular Discovery (AMD), centers on developing machine-learning and other computational techniques to dramatically streamline the discovery of molecules with properties relevant to the Department of Defense. Think here of chemical-warfare simulants for research, coatings that protect assets and personnel, specialty fuels, and medicines to counter emerging threats. With an eye on that last one, Dr. Fischer has been swerving some AMD work into an urgent hunt for molecules with previously unrecognized antibiotic properties. One specific target is new treatments for secondary, bacterial lung infections in patients with COVID-19. The other program Dr. Fischer is swerving into the COVID-19 response is Make-It. The program’s envisioned deliverables for the DoD include tabletop chemical-synthesis systems that can produce chemicals when and where they are needed. Think here of the ability to quickly synthesize pharmaceuticals in a battlefield setting. Think here also of a chemical-synthesis channel independent of globalized supply chains that can become compromised. Now, this capability for on-demand synthesis of chemical products, including antivirals and reagents for diagnostic tests, is revealing Make-It technology as a promising component of our ability to respond to emergencies such as outbreaks of infectious diseases. For a previous discussion with Dr. Fischer about her background, interests, and long-term goals for the programs she manages, please listen to Episode 22, titled The Chemquistador.    
We find ourselves in pandemic times. The global population is under siege by an infectious virus new to humankind. It’s called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2. It’s the causative agent of the pandemic disease designated COVID-19. This viral adversary knows no politics. It recognizes no national boundaries. It is unconcerned with anyone’s identity. All 7.8 billion of us are the same to the virus: we are all hosts suitable to commandeer to make copies of itself. DARPA has long recognized how devastating pandemic diseases like COVID-19 could be and the Agency embraced the attitude that it could do something about the threat of pandemics. In recent years, it has been creating and supporting communities of innovators who are doing the science and applying the lessons they are learning to create a technology platform that stands a chance of this: preventing any outbreak of infectious disease—anywhere and anytime—from growing into a global conflagration like the one we are experiencing right now. In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, join a team of program managers in the Agency’s Biological Technologies Office as they explain how they are striving to develop a multi-pronged technology platform that has the potential to render COVID-19 humanity’s last pandemic. Transcript: http://www.darpa.mil/attachments/PreventingPandemics_transcript.txt  
Episode 23: Joe Spectrum

Episode 23: Joe Spectrum

2018-10-0434:111

  In this episode of our Voices from DARPA podcast, Joseph Evans, a program manager since 2015 in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Strategic Technology Office (STO), shares with listeners how his embrace of data, communications technologies, and the electromagnetic spectrum—the invisible place where radio, radar, and other radio frequency (RF) signals live and propagate—has led to the portfolio of programs that he now oversees. This portfolio includes a program that essentially renders visible the frenetic RF activity that is going on in the space we occupy. Another program features the challenge of converting radar systems into communications channels. In yet another, Joe is striving to find better ways of leveraging the ever-growing reservoir of commercial and open-source satellite imagery to improve warfighters’ abilities to detect, monitor, and track what is going on, that is, to improve situational awareness. Joe also flies planes, skippers boats, skies, runs, and sometimes straps on a guitar to send acoustic waves into the same space hosting all of those electromagnetic waves that he cares so much about.  
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Comments (6)

Joel Hamburg

interesting podcast. how effective has this been on treating Covid-19?

Oct 17th
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Joel Hamburg

mind blowing...

Sep 25th
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Joel Hamburg

Fascinating discussion!

Aug 25th
Reply

Joel Hamburg

Fascinating!

Aug 23rd
Reply

Joel Hamburg

wonderful and interesting popcast.

Aug 23rd
Reply

Joel Hamburg

very interesting podcast

Aug 23rd
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