Intelligence ARPA splits into three branches


You know you love the cool new IARPA logo.

Yesterday I interviewed IARPA's new director, Lisa Porter.

Intelligence and defense are often conflated in the popular imagination, but the two operate quite differently. Where the defense department likes to let you know what they've done for you lately, intelligence tends to keep their successes to themselves. Those cultural differences trickle down to the two organizations' ARPAs.

DARPA, for example, has a much better-organized PR machine. You can bet that I would not have been interviewing DARPA director Tony Tether by cell phone sitting on the ground on a little patch of grass outside the Pentagon. But due to a last minute snafu,* I found myself sitting next to a tool shed outside the NSA compound in which IARPA has a temporary home, fighting off DC's herculean flies and armada of small ants, doing a cell phone interview with Lisa Porter, who was in her office about 500 feet to my left.

I was on the train from New York to Washington, DC, several hours earlier when I got the unexpected news that my interview had to be done by phone. Why? Apparently my credentials hadn't cleared. I had the whole rest of the train ride to mull over why I was not allowed to sit in the same room with Dr. Porter. I'm not a terrorist. I know at least that. I'm not a serial killer-- I think. Though if I had some kind of multiple personality disorder, I couldn't be sure. Have I been making threats on internet forums? I barely have time to blog, much less comment. No, that's not it.

Maybe its not me. Maybe it's her: what if Lisa Porter is one of her own gadgets and she's not quite ready for prime time? Is Lisa Porter a Turing Test?

I never did find the answers to any of these questions. At 3:30 p.m., I sat outside the black iron gates of the compound in a shady spot (where it was 85, and not 87 degrees) and waited for a phone call from 500 feet away. On the upside, I'm now rocking a very becoming tan.

If Lisa Porter is a Turing test, she's a very convincing one. She's very smart and very charming. Porter started her tenure as IARPA's director on February 2, and since then she's been busy. Next week, IARPA plans to announce the three program offices into which Porter has split the agency: Smart Collection, Incisive Analysis, and Safe and Secure Operations.

Porter explained the directives of the three offices.

The Smart Collection Office is intended to improve the value of collected data. "You're often limited in the amount you can collect," Porter explained, "so you want to focus your efforts." The main thrust of this office, se said, is to get predictive about where the information is and what exactly you might be looking for. She likens traditional information collection to the classic problem, the drunk looking for his keys under the light. He didn't lose them there, but that's the only place the light is. "You're solve the problem you know how to solve," she says, "instead of the one you actually need to solve."

The Incisive Analysis Office maximize the insight they get from the information in a timely fashion. They want to boil down that fire hose of data and provide decision makers with necessary information before it's too late. Porter imagines using virtual worlds, for example, "to help analysts get their arms around all this data." This program office also includes a social engineering and linguistics element. "You want to not just understand what's being said," Porter says, "but what the cultural implications are."

The Safe and Secure Operations Office is being set up to counter the capabilities of adversaries. One of the subprograms is cybersecurity; another is quantum information.

This information will be posted at next week (which is also when that site goes live).

Now Porter is looking for program managers, which could be a bit of a challenge. Word is, even DARPA has trouble finding those.

* Update, 4/21: Full disclosure: IARPA PR reminds me that no one forced me to sit outside the compound gates. I was given other options for conducting my cell phone interview, like sitting in a cafe or a nearby park (the PR person noted that "it was a beautiful day"). I decided to sit outside the black gates of the NSA compound anyway to possibly guilt Lisa Porter into coming out to meet me. That did not work.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.