DARPA’s podcast series, "Voices from DARPA," offers a revealing and informative window on the minds of the Agency's program managers. In each episode, a program manager from one of DARPA’s six technical offices—Biological Technologies, Defense Sciences, Information Innovation, Microsystems Technology, Strategic Technology, and Tactical Technology—will discuss in informal and personal terms why they are at DARPA and what they are up to. The goal of "Voices from DARPA" is to share with listeners some of the institutional know-how, vision, process, and history that together make the “secret sauce” DARPA has been adding to the Nation’s innovation ecosystem for nearly 60 years. On another level, we at DARPA just wanted to share the pleasure we all have every day—in the elevator, in the halls, in our meeting rooms—as we learn from each other and swap ideas and strive to change what’s possible.
Episode 49: A Decade of Living Foundries
This episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast takes listeners on a tour of an audacious, decade-long project to merge biology and engineering into one of the most powerful engines of molecular invention the world has known. Although plenty of work remains to be done, the program, Living Foundries, is winding down to a close. But not before its community of research performers and collaborators already has delivered a new and versatile biotechnology platform whose consequences have begun to ripple out. New companies. Follow-on investments. Chemical- and materials-based technologies for the Department of Defense … and perhaps one day for the public at large. Featured in the podcast are reflections form three of the program managers who have been stewards of the program, two research performers who helped make real the vision of Living Foundries, and even the sound of one potential Living Foundries product doing what it does best.
Episode 48: The Inner-Machine Therapist
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, John-Francis Mergen (https://www.darpa.mil/staff/mr-john-francis-mergen), a program manager since 2020 in the agency’s Information Innovation Office (https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/offices/BTO), recounts how his interest in science took off as a child when he received a gift of a low-power magnifier from a family friend who was a geologist. From that gift, Mergen says, he learned about the power of observation and of the mindset one brings into that elemental component of the scientific enterprise. For his part, Mergen has spent a lot of time observing the complex ebbs and flows of data packets, which are mobile portions of information that race every which way through the internet and then get reassembled on your computer into a web page, a picture, or an email message. One of the first DARPA programs Mergen started to run last year aims to optimize the efficiency of packet traffic and management based on dynamic prioritization of information categories, such as text, voice or images, while preserving privacy and confidentiality for the sender and recipient of those packets. Another program Mergen runs is anticipating emerging threats associated with the exploding population of internet-connected-devices—the Internet-of-Things (IoT)—with an eye on security-enhancing communications protocols. Mergen has skin in the game: he says he has several hundred devices (including an internet-connected beehive!) at home that are connected to the Internet. One of his newest programs, if successful, will deliver technology that applies artificial intelligence to manage IoT devices so that they automatically and securely configure themselves, in his words, “in a way that is useful but not in a way that can be used” by adversaries, criminals, and others seeking to do harm. In a program just getting underway, Mergen envisions vehicles, manufacturing tools, and other technologies with a kind of self-awareness, which would be based on the many sensors, actuation devices, and computers in their designs, along with the ability to leverage this gadget-based self-awareness into automatic adjustments of operations. The payoff? Mergen says it could lead to more capable and longer-lasting technologies that could bring out their own best in changing circumstances. One possibility is that already-deployed technologies would “discover” capabilities they have in specific situations that not even their designers had in mind.
Episode 47: The Life Saver
In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, Tristan McClure-Begley, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Biological Technologies Office, recounts how he knew he wanted to be a biologist at the age of 7. That, thanks to an engineer dad, a psychologist mom, and a catalytic high-school teacher, all of whom ignited Tristan’s curiosity. Now Tristan is a program manager overseeing an ambitious portfolio of programs that is expanding the boundaries of battlefield medicine as well as neurocognitive science and practice. One of his programs is laying ground work for molecular tissue-stabilization interventions to help severely injured warfighters survive long enough to receive the medical treatment that can save them. In another program he is overseeing, researchers are investigating how peripheral nerve stimulation can improve cognitive tasks such as learning a new language. Two other programs could redefine what is possible in pharmaceutical science and practice. One of these is opening pathways to so-called polypharmaceutical treatments in which a single therapeutic agent intervenes in multiple cellular or physiological targets associated with a disease. The current paradigm centers on developing drugs that interact with a single disease-relevant target. Another of Tristan’s ambitious programs is devoted to warfighters who are suffering from post-traumatic stress and other psychiatric challenges. Researchers working on this project are diving into the clinical successes of hallucinogenic substances, such as LSD and psilocybin, with an eye on identifying new agents that can deliver therapeutic value but without the hallucinogenic effects, which are not suitable for many patients. Says Tristan, “I pretty much want to learn everything about everything.” That’s how you get a DARPA program portfolio like his.
Episode 46: The Jet Packer
Voices from DARPA podcast, Alexander (Xander) Walan, a program manager since 2017 in the agency’s Tactical Technology Office, pegs the source of his lifelong fascination with aircraft and flight to the Chicago Air and Water Shows his dad took him and his four siblings to when they were children. At DARPA, he has applied that interest, his training in aeronautical engineering, a 22-year career in the Air Force overseeing some 70 technology-development programs, and an MBA to his oversight of programs featuring DARPA’s signature audacity. One program that Xander inherited from a previous program manager proved it was possible to fly and navigate massive aircraft in the stratosphere as potential supplements to satellites by exploiting differing wind conditions at differing altitudes.Test flights of the huge balloons at the center of the program triggered reports of UFOs. Another one of his programs took steps toward aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL), like a helicopter or drone, but at unprecedented speeds of hundreds of miles per hour. No X-plane prototype came out of that effort, but pathways forward and dead-ends to avoid did. Xander’s current primary project, known as the Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors (CRANE) program, is investigating ways of controlling how air flows over aircraft surfaces to open engineering pathways toward planes that can be steered without the need for moveable surfaces. One more thing: Xander recently got the green light for a small initiative to pursue, in his words, “battlefield personal mobility,” which could lead to small, quiet paragliders or helicopters as well as a type of aeronautic equipment long emblematic of the future: jet packs. Says Xander, “there’s some technology that’s now emerging that might make that more practical.” https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/podcast (https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/podcast)
Episode 45: Ushering Microelectronics into Its Next Era
In this episode of the Voices form DARPA podcast, listeners get a status report on DARPA’s ambitious and expansive Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI) and learn about the many touchpoints that DARPA and the microelectronics sector have shared over the past half-century. Also in the podcast is a preview of a follow-on effort, ERI 2.0, which is designed to accelerate the transition of foundational research and development into prototyping, manufacturing, and delivery of next-generation microelectronics technologies.
Episode 44: Sounds of Innovation 3
Go into a science or engineering laboratory. Close your eyes. And listen. Welcome to our third Sounds of Innovation episode, an intermittent feature of our Voices from DARPA podcast. Rather than hearing the voices of program managers, which is normally what you get in a Voices from DARPA podcast, in each Sounds of Innovation episode, you hear some of the soundscapes of research and development, and you learn just a little bit about the world-changing capabilities those sounds could lead to. See if you can guess how the sounds were produced before our podcast host reveals their origin. One hint for the first set of soundscapes is that they have nothing to do with big drops of rain hitting a tin roof. Here’s a lead regarding the second soundscape: you might want to be sitting when the host reveals the extreme-tech that produced the sound. For the third set of sounds, let’s just say that if you were a mosquito – and we are not saying you are – the sounds definitely would not be music to your ears.
PR or Progress?
This was a huge relief but then the next natural question is: Why did we have to resort to a total life-freeze and so unprepared for these events at every systematic level? Where is this knowledge and experience propagated to if not the Homeland Security, CDC, etc...
At the minimum, the readiness of the Healthcare delivery industry & adequate training of the Healthcare staff should have been achieved by now.
Please keep up the great work & THANK YOU.
Interesting AI developments
Thought provoking discussion. I enjoyed hearing about new developments
DARPA is so cutting-edge and I would love to hear more podcasts from these incredible individuals;project managers leading the future. I have no idea if we’ll get anymore podcasts, but to the individual who made these interviews possible I truly appreciate your effort into making these idea public. And thanks to the host who in my opinion has always done a fantastic job electrifying the topics into the truly captivating concepts that are leading our future today.