Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,222nd Meeting

President Ruth McDiarmid called the 2,222nd meeting to order at 8:15 pm April 29, 2007 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. The recording secretary read the minutes of the 2,221st meeting and they were approved.

Ms. McDiarmid made announcements. She made a pitch for volunteers to help the Society by contributing effort, by financial contributions, and by bringing friends. She made the parking announcement.

Ms. McDiarmid then introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. Tony Tether, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is the central research and development organization of the Department of Defense. It manages projects where the risk and payoff are both very high and where success could provide dramatic advances in military missions. Mr. Tether spoke on Technologies of the Future.


Mr. Tether referred us to a booklet he brought, nicely bound and covered, that explains DARPA more fully. He recommended it to all parties, saying it was written simply, and added, with no apparent connection, that it was written for Congress.

DARPA is run, he said, by 100 to 125 program managers. These people work for DARPA for four to six years. DARPA’s personnel program allows management to make a person an offer and have the person working in the afternoon. People have to give up everything to come to DARPA. They become civil servants, and they have to accept post-employment restrictions. Very few of them see their ideas brought to a conclusion; that takes too long. They are very strange people, he said.

He described the organizational structure. At the top are himself and Bob Leheny, the deputy director. There are some staff offices. There are six program offices, and that’s the end of the chart.

The six program offices are Tactical Technology, Information Exploitation, Strategic Technology, Defense Sciences, Information Processing Technology, and Microsystems Technology. Mr. Tether said that if he could, he would have them all work on one floor and have co-ed rest rooms.

DARPA’s role is to bridge the gap between applied research and basic research. Applied research is conducted by organizations hoping to profit from the investment. Universities conduct basic research which leads to results in the long term. The gap between them was where President Eisenhower found the problem when the Soviets launched the first orbiting satellite. The Agency:

- sponsors research the Services won’t support because it is risky, does not fit their specific role, or challenges existing systems,

- works to develop capabilities commanders may want in the future, not capabilities they know they want to day, and

- insists that all programs start with good ideas and good people to pursue them.

In the ‘60’s DARPA developed ground surveillance radar and the Saturn program. Saturn was what gave President Kennedy the confidence to say we could get to the Moon.

In the 70’s, low-cost titanium was a DARPA project. Titanium had been too expensive to be useful for many military uses. DARPA came up with a way to separate some of the titanium from its associated oxygen and use the remaining titanium oxide for other uses, thus reducing the cost of the titanium.

DARPA’s best-known creation is the internet, which began in the 60’s and 70’s. The original network was the ARPANet and its associated TCP/IP network protocol for transferring data from one computer appliance to another. The fundamental element of public and private networks was and is packet switching, developed by DARPA.

The things DARPA is now working on include a chip scale atomic clock. Such a clock could be built into computer chips and relieve them from dependence on external time devices. The accuracy they are looking for is one microsecond a day. They are using their “hold a contest” strategy to generate possibilities.

They are also working on alternative energy sources. One possibility is a high efficiency solar cell. Current solar cells use only a small part of the spectrum. DARPA is working on an idea to use prisms to separate the spectrum and thereby hopefully be able to use more of it. Another idea is bio-fuels from crops. They can make JP-8 from rapeseed or some other oilseed crop.

They have a petascale computer on the drawing board. It would execute 109 mips (million instructions per second).

They are working on less expensive space launches. They feel a big hurdle to utilization of space is the cost of getting up there. One possibility is to use airplanes to get some of the load part way up. He likened what we do now, load all the fuel for the whole thing at the beginning, to buying a new car with enough fuel for 100,000 miles.

Vaccines are of considerable interest to the military, and DARPA in particular. The health of soldiers has always been a major factor in military efforts, and now the health of civilians is as well. At present, it can take 15 years from discovery to a vaccine we can use. The problem is large scale manufacturing, which currently usually involves eggs from very special chickens. An alternative approach is to use industrial fermentation.

His favorite project, and he apologized for having a favorite one, involves a monkey at Duke University named Aurora. Aurora has a probe in her brain less than a micron wide which picks up signals related to hand and arm movements. Aurora used a joystick to move a robotic arm to get treats to her mouth. The brain signals were also connected to the robotic arm. After a while, Aurora realized she did not have to move her arm, she was able to move the joystick just with brain signals. He recalled the many people at Walter Reed without limbs. He believes that, not too long hence, amputees will have complete functionality, just like they had before.

He described a program that has generated great interest, the DARPA Grand Challenge. This is a winner-take-all $2 million contest to have a robotic vehicle drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas across a desert course with only two human originated commands, start and stop. Last year, 195 teams from 36 states ran the 132 mile track, with lots of hairpin turns, tunnels, gates, and Los Angeles power poles. Stanford University’s entry, “Stanley,” was the winner. In the previous year, only a couple of entries finished the course. Last year, only a few entries failed to finish.

They are now designing an Urban Grand Challenge, in which the vehicles will move in traffic.

In the question and answer period, he was asked how they will get insurance for the Urban Grand Challenge. He did not know. They had failed to get insurance for the Grand Challenge, and instead had contestants turn over ownership of the vehicles to the U.S. government for the duration of the race.

He was asked if other organizations are applying DARPA’s organizational ideas. He said people are trying, but all attempts have omitted a critical factor, not keeping people very long. He said DARPA is the easiest organization to change, because of the turnover. All he has to do is concentrate new hires in a certain area. He said the loss of corporate memory is good because they forget what they could not do two years ago.

Do people leaving go work for defense contractors? More often they start their own companies, he said.


Ms. McDiarmid presented a plaque commemorating the occasion to Mr. Tether, and Mr. Tether presented a collectible Benjamin Franklin dollar to the Society. At 9:43 pm, the president adjourned the 2,222nd meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 66
Temperature: 17° C
Weather: Cool, breezy, relatively clear

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala
Recording secretary

←Previous Minutes - Abstract & Speaker Biography - Next Minutes→
Meeting Archive - Home