Darpa’s Greatest Hits and Misses

Which of the programs dreamed up by the far-out thinkers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) count as the biggest hits, and which were undisputed flops? The New Scientist has come up with an interesting list of DARPA projects, running from successes, to failures, as well as "could be" successes of the future. As the agency turns 50 years old, it’s an interesting subject that offers a wealth of material.

Most everyone would agree with New Scientist’s choice of number one success: the Internet/ARPAnet. I’m also happy to see the hafnium bomb (the subject of my previous book), take its proper place at the top of the list of failures (at least in terms of hillarity, though not in dollar figures). However, it’s also nice to see highlighted among the successes DARPA’s work on gallium arsenide, a lesser known project that reaped huge benefits for wireless communications.

It’s a good list, though there’s certainly room for debate. For example, the nuclear-powered spaceship, Project Orion, is listed under failures, but still has quite a devoted following. It’s also interesting that you don’t often see DARPA’s work on missile defense — a significant early focus of the agency– show up on lists of successes or failures. The article also list DARPA’s work on the Phraselator translation device as a success. "Although not yet available to consumers, hand-held language translation devices developed with DARPA funding are already being used in Iraq," the article says. "Although accuracy can be as low as 50%, the devices have met with favorable reviews from forces on the ground."

I have to admit that what I’ve seen of the Phraselator wasn’t impressive, though certainly it could develop into something more useful down the road. It was a clunky device that, at least for now, only offers one-way communication; lower-tech translation aides, like fold-out picture cards that allow the speakers to point at easily recognizable pictures seem to make more intuitive sense (and are cheaper, don’t break down, etc.). That said, I haven’t spoken to anybody who has used the Phraselator in the field, so it would be interesting to hear a non-PR view.

Has anybody out there actually used the Phraselator in theater and can offer an educated opinion? Is it a DARPA success or failure? (5.16.2008, Sharon Weinberger) http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2008/05/darpa-hits-and

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