Brain Caps and Pentagon Pandas

I wasn't able to make it out to DarpaTech 2005, last week's get-together of the Pentagon's way-out researachers. Luckily, Defense Tech spy Catherine Macrae Hockmuth snuck in for all of us. She a veteran defense industry reporter who's returning to the field after a little hiatus. Here's what she found... IPTO exhibit.jpgIts amazing how much defense conferences are like episodes of Law & Order. Even when you stop watching for a time its easy to jump back in because the issues never change. Law & Order is forever about perverts on the loose, people who kill family for insurance, and weird, doped-up rich kids who kill for fun. Speeches at defense conferences are always about shortening DODs odious procurement cycle, managing hordes of data, lifting the fog of war, and managing hordes of data.DarpaTech, a technology conference held every 18 months in Anaheim by the Defense Departments mad scientists is no exception. Fortunately, Darpa program managers have always had a certain I-have-no-idea-if-this-will-work,-but charm, and that allows for some wild animation and ideas. And, oh yes, pleas to the defense industrial complex for help, which is the basic function of DarpaTech. Some 2,500 attendees listened attentively this week as PMs laid out their big ideas, closing with some variation on if you can help make this happen come see me.At that, a few ideas:Brain Caps. Navy Cmdr. Dylan Schmorrow wants to put brain caps on soldiers to improve their ability to take in new information under stress. Schmorrow, a Darpa program manager in the Information Processing Technology Office, is a naval aerospace experimental psychologist. The concept is based on the fact that humans can only handle so much information at any given time. As a result, complex human-machine interactive environments common in the military often fail under stress, according to a description of the program, Improving Warfighter Information Intake [formerly known as "Augmented Cognition" --ed.], on IPTOs Web site.Schmorrow said if you were to ask a person whether he wanted lunch while he was giving a presentation and simultaneously answering questions from a crowd of people, you wouldnt get much of an answer. Thats because his brains verbal center is overloaded. But if you gestured to him by simulating eating a sandwich, he could probably nod or motion yes or no.Schmorrow said brain caps would not read minds; they would just measure types of activity much the way mood rings report when someone is stressed out. More broadly, as displayed in IPTOs giant brain exhibit, artificial intelligence researchers are trying to teach computers how to learn and reason like us. Its the difference between programming a robot to play soccer, and enabling a robot to learn the game.PANDA. Darpas IXO office wants software that can analyze strange maritime behavior, alerting the Navy when somethings not right such as a shipful of terrorists transporting WMDs. Apparently, pirates are something of a menace on the high seas, hijacking commercial vessels, stealing and selling illicit materials and wreaking havoc on the shipping industry. PANDA, or predictive analysis for naval deployment activities, would track local and global patterns of behavior by commercial vessels including their shipping routes and routine detours for fuel or paperwork. That way when a ship that always travels between Malaysia and Japan winds up in the Indian Ocean we know something is up.Information Explotation Office (IXO) Program Manager Kendra Moore said currently this sort of tracking is done manually based on a list of about 100 vessels that are known to be troublemakers. She plans to issue a broad area announcement on the program in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, the Sixth Fleet will soon be the first to deploy new software that will automate the tracking process until PANDA comes along. Moore said the automation software, Fast-C2AP, would make tracking down certain ships more like looking for a stock price online.Multi-Modal Missiles. The military has missiles that can shoot down planes, and destroy tanks and bunkers, what it doesnt have is a single missile that can do all of those things. Oh, and, Tactical Technology Office Director Art Morrish asks, can it be handheld? Morrish asked attendees to play other thought games, such as:

What if we didnt have to trade efficiency for speed? What if we could make aircraft that could fly in and out of an area at Mach 1.5 or better and still have tens of hours to days of loiter time?
Space Dust. Gary Graham, from the Virtual Space Office, continued the game with a call for WMD-hunting space dust and other novelties.

The time is ripe for revolution. What if we could launch many small microsatellites and network them with WiFi, the way we link laptops to the web at Starbucks? What if we could develop a launch vehicle so light and reusable that we could move from limited launches to space sorties? What if we could develop antennas that are small on launch, enormous on orbit? Or apertures that build themselves in space? What if we could exploit near space to take advantage of the closer distances and eliminate orbital launch requirements altogether? What if, in the quest to monitor weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), we could sprinkle large geographic areas with dust that changes in the presence of WMD agents and monitor all this from space?
Sounds swell, Gary. As long as I'm not allergic. For more on Catherine's take on DarpaTech, click on back tomorrow...
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