10 amazing DARPA inventions

Ten brilliant innovations that were born at - or inspired by - the legendary US defence agency

Davey Winder
29 Mar 2016
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4. Siri

The Siri voice-recognition system embedded in the latest iPhone was born out of DARPA research.

Apple acquired Siri, the company and the technology it had developed, in 2010. Siri was founded in 2007, but the original research upon which the technology was built – Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (CALO) – was funded by DARPA in order to develop better tools for soldiers in the field.

Along with the Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL) program, DARPA has been researching the concept of voice recognition combined with artificial intelligence since 2003.

Inspired by the Latin “calonis”, or soldier’s servant, the CALO project ended in 2008, having gone a long way towards reaching the aim of building a cognitive assistant that learns from experience.

It’s been replaced by BOLT, or the Broad Operational Language Translation program. BOLT aims to take CALO to the next level, from being a bridge between man and machine to a bridge between people themselves.

Its goal is to provide translation of foreign languages, extract contextual information from those translations, and by doing so enable soldiers in the field to maintain fluent bilingual communication without previous knowledge of the language.

BOLT isn’t only about spoken language; it will also allow accurate and contextual translation from SMS and email.

5. Unix (and the cloud)

Before Unix – without which there would be no OS X or iOS, no Android and, of course, no Linux – there was Multics.

The Multiplexed Information and Computing Service was a project heavily funded by DARPA in order to develop an “information utility” that could provide computer services 24/7.

Think a modular system, where banks of components within the design – such as processors, memory, comms and so on – could operate independently without tying up the service as a whole.

Throw in resilience to attack and the ability to have various classifications of data (top secret all the way down to unclassified) co-existing on the same system without being accessible by users without necessary clearance, and you have a clue as to the DARPA interest.

The super-strength security aspect was put on the back burner by the time Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie became involved in 1969, and Peter Neumann proposed the name Unix for the system they started working on.

So where does cloud computing come into all this? Well, Multics also saw the birth of the “timeshared mainframe” through the work of Bell Labs, GE and MIT. The sharing of resources from a remote super-server through local dumb terminals is as good a description of a basic cloud infrastructure as we’ve heard.

6. GPS

There are two technologies developed by DARPA that the world couldn’t function without today.

One is the internet, and the other is GPS; if either were to be switched off, everything from global commerce to national defence systems would be compromised to the point of potential collapse.

The Global Positioning System project dates back to 1973 and was originally very much a military system, funded and created by the US Department of Defense. However, the concept dates back even further to the very early days of DARPA itself.

satnav

Following the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, two US physicists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) discovered that by using radio transmissions and the Doppler effect (the change in frequency of a wave for an observer moving relative to the source of the wave) they could pinpoint the precise location of the Sputnik satellite.

DARPA wanted to use this to help the US Navy with Polaris missile research, which required it to know the precise location of the submarine launching the nukes.

The TRANSIT system, later known as NAVSAT, was the first operational satellite navigation system and went live in 1964, continuing until eventually being decommissioned two years after GPS went fully operational in 1994.

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