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A Canticle For DARPATech

The Defense Advanced Research Project's Agency's Mega-Conference Is No More.

2 min read
A Canticle For DARPATech

I’ll never eat Pentagon m&ms again. A DARPA spokesperson has confirmed that there will be no more DARPATech, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s bi-annual (but occasionally annual, and at other times occurring only every three years) conference, at which the latest and greatest “mad science” technologies go prime time. A quick eulogy is in order.

DARPATech 2007 featured a particular bumper crop: Robot arms, unmanned autonomous robot Humvees, all-seeing blimps, an autonomous insect-like robot called "Little Dog," a robo-beast of burden called Big Dog, and a deputy director’s bikini-clad demonstration of a core-temperature regulating glove. There was even a bracing dose of reality.

Yes, DARPATech was probably a PR boondoggle meant to remind news outfits that the Defense Department isn’t just about killing people. But is that so wrong? Of all the Defense agencies, DARPA is probably the best-run. DARPA program managers have four-year contracts, and they never get the chance to become career bureaucrats. After their term is up, they are told to skedaddle no matter the status of their project. The agency is low on bureaucracy and high on ideas. And the ideas are life-changing.

However, the Obama administration is likely avoiding highly visible celebrations of war. That might be an unfair description of DARPATech, but how else would you characterize 3,000 defense contractors hanging out at a convention so elaborate and shiny that it makes a trip across the street to Disneyland (literally) seem boring?

Most likely, the biggest reason is money. When Danger Room blogged the 2007 convention, reporter Sharon Weinberger observed that the best kept secret at DARPAtech was "how much it costs."

According to Yudhijit Bhattacharjee at ScienceInsider, the FY2011 budget for DARPA is $2.9 billion. Though the agency lost $100 million from 2010, they shifted $200 million to basic research (bringing that amount to $2 billion). To get to that number, DARPA said that it had to chop some "low priority weapons development programs." Also: shiny conventions across the street from Disneyland.

The DARPA spokesperson told me that the agency has been pursuing “different arrangements.” In January, for example, they hosted the DARPA Industry Summit in Washington, DC “to discuss key globalization issues,” and he says that DARPA expects to hold similar meetings in the future.

Full disclosure: I am an unabashed DARPA fangirl. For me, this is very sad news indeed.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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