DARPA’s Three Big Ideas

Cyber security is a big deal.  As computers become more adept, threats become more apparent and effective.  Many government organizations are throwing their best and brightest at programs designed with cyber safety and security in mind.

DARPA is no different.

Last week, I told you about DARPA’s FOUR BIG THINGS that they’re working on to change the way computers think, learn and defend themselves.  In addition to that, the agency also has THREE BIG IDEAS in the realm of big data that augment their cyber warfare strategy.

“We’ve talked about this Internet of things,” says Dan Kaufman, Director of the Information Innovation Office for DARPA.  “You cyber, and it gets everywhere.  One of the powers of this is that everything is programmable, and that’s why we like it, but here’s what we don’t know. Here’s the secret.  It’s not programmable by you. So, if we’re going to empower the military we have to change that dynamic.”

Basically, DARPA is saying that you should not need a PhD in computer science to program computers.  Or at least, that’s what they’re hoping to achieve.  They want people to be able use their own computers and have it be easy enough for anyone to program it for their own uses.

Photo: The Memex program gets its name and inspiration from a hypothetical device described in “As We May Think,” a 1945 article for The Atlantic Monthly written by Vannevar Bush, director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during World War II. (DARPA courtesy photo/Released)

The Memex program gets its name and inspiration from a hypothetical device described in “As We May Think,” a 1945 article for The Atlantic Monthly written by Vannevar Bush, director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during World War II. (DARPA courtesy photo/Released)

They have a number of programs looking at that, but the number we’re going to focus on is three.  This trifecta of big data ideas that DARPA has up their sleeve could change everything.  The first program, called MEMEX, is all about getting down into the dirty parts of Internet searches.  The seedy underbelly, more like.

Here’s how most people think search works on the Internet: You type in what you’re looking for, the engine you’re using searches the whole Internet and then brings you back this list.  And that’s nice, but that’s not how it works.

“The Internet’s indexed about 1 to 5% of all the information,” Dan points out.  “That’s all that it does, because that’s what the ad companies care about, and that’s what they bring back to you.”

You can imagine, for national security reasons, that some organizations and agencies may want to go deep into the web.  Places where Google is not designed to go.  Where the diseases of the Internet fester and feed.  Now, you might be wondering why a government organization would want to tread in the digital Swamp of Sadness.   Simply put, to find the people that made it that way.

“So the first thing we’re going after is the scourge of human trafficking,” Dan explains.  “We’re already showing some early results, which makes you feel great because it’s a horrible thing.  Being able to make any dent is great.”

Graphic: MUSE seeks to leverage deep program analyses and big data analytics to create a public database containing mined inferences about salient properties, behaviors and vulnerabilities of software drawn from the hundreds of billions of lines of open source code available today.  (DARPA courtesy photo/Released)

MUSE seeks to leverage deep program analyses and big data analytics to create a public database containing mined inferences about salient properties, behaviors and vulnerabilities of software drawn from the hundreds of billions of lines of open source code available today. (DARPA courtesy photo/Released)

The second idea is something called MUSE, or mining and understanding software enclaves.  It’s working on making computers user-programmable.

Think about how weird it is to program a computer.  It is a little strange that we have to learn a new language, just to teach a computer a command, which then needs to be translated back into our language.  It’s a system that works, but it’s not as user-friendly as it could be.

But if there are already so many people that already know how to do this (see: the whole IT community), why do we continue to struggle?

Dan explains it.  “It’s like me and a German guy want to communicate, and we decide that the best way to communicate is to learn Chinese.  And then, we speak Chinese to each other and we’re shocked that we had a miscommunication.  That’s exactly what happens in a computer today.”

We learn a language, Java or C or Pascal or Ruby on Rails but you’re doing that because you want to be able to ask the computer something like, “Why did you do that?”

Well, the computer doesn’t understand that phrase.  It has to be written to a compiler, which is then translated into a machine language.  Seems like a lot of middle steps, right?  To this, DARPA wonders…what if we got rid of those extra steps?

“What if you could just talk to a computer?  What if you could program your computer by telling it what you want to do, and then doing it?  In one sense we should get rid of about half the errors, because now I don’t have to translate it into some weird language, I’m just doing it. I’m just talking to it.”

The third program is something that Dan calls, “a dream, but still cool”.  It’s called Big Mechanism.

One of the problems with big data, and one of the excitements about big data, is right now just correlation.  One thing relates to another thing, but it never tells you why, right?  Dan says that if DARPA is going to get into the world of national security they need to understand the why.

Big Mechanism has big plans, obviously, including open source and lots of things.  However, for the sake of not getting ahead of ourselves, let’s start in the field of biology because, as Dan says, it’s a little bit limited.

“So what if I told you the following,” Dan says.  “Imagine that the cure for cancer exists.  Okay?  It’s there.  Unfortunately, it’s spread out over 100,000 articles, in 20 different languages. And each article has one little tiny piece.  It just says ‘gene A inhibits gene B’.   And some poor scientist spent ten years of his life figuring that out.  Well, how are we ever going to put all of this together? But imagine that we could create a piece of software – this is a program called Big Mechanism – that would go out and weed through all the articles.”

With Big Mechanism, the computer would read them, break it down into all of its constituent parts, and build it back into a model.  Then the computer could hand it back to the user and say ‘I’ve read everything and I believe this is how everything interacts’.

“Now that goes to a scientist and, fundamentally, if we do it right, it’s a brand new way of doing science.”

A new way of doing things should be DARPA’s motto.  They’ve already crossed the Rubicon into the high-intensity world of cyber warfare and big data mining, but the key here is innovation.  DARPA has a knack for doing things a little bit differently than others.  In this and many regards, it’s a strategy that serves them well.  Whether it be stopping predators, reconstructing computer languages or helping in the quest to cure cancer, DARPA sure knows how to blaze trails.

As Jayne Cobb  famously  said:

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Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

Relevant content: DARPA’s Four Big Things 

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