When defense meets education

DARPA said it recognizes that it must work hard to win back the attention of top researchers.
DARPA said it recognizes that it must work hard to win back the attention of top researchers.

Thanks to a new direction at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the phrase “always 10 years behind” no longer might apply to education: The agency that developed GPS and the internet is stepping up its efforts to deliver new technology to sectors other than the military—and schools will be among the key beneficiaries.

As part of its newly expanded focus, DARPA is advancing its collaborative work with universities. One example of DARPA’s new focus on collaboration with the education sector is the agency’s work with Louisiana State University (LSU).

A research group with LSU’s Center for Computation and Technology has received two awards to provide technical contributions to DARPA’s Ubiquitous High Performance Computing Program (UHPC).

According to DARPA, UHPC brings together researchers and scientists from universities, businesses, and national laboratories to develop new system architecture and software to support the creation of next-generation supercomputers. The first models will be completed by 2018, the agency says.

LSU is an academic partner of the X-Caliber project—a lead component of UHPC, led by Sandia National Laboratories, to develop advanced computing systems capable of running complex calculations a thousand times faster than today’s most powerful supercomputers.

National science and engineering organizations have made developing new supercomputing systems a top research priority, because today’s largest and most powerful supercomputers will be too slow and obsolete to run the kinds of applications needed to use computational science efficiently.

Scientists say they could complete astrophysics research to investigate black hole and neutron star collisions, study RNA molecules passing through cell membranes to understand how viruses are transmitted and spread through the human body, and forecast hurricane paths and their resulting damage more quickly and effectively if they had more advanced supercomputers.

“Such systems will enable applications that require months of computation time today to take hours by the end of the decade and make possible real-time applications that cannot be done at all now,” said Thomas Sterling, a professor in LSU’s Department of Computer Science.

Sterling and his research group at the Center for Computation and Technology, where he has a joint appointment, will lead LSU’s contributions to the project, which include execution models, runtime system software, memory system architecture, and symbolic applications. To complete the project, Sterling received $1.2 million from DARPA for four years of work.

“We are entering the next phase of computing and, essentially, everything has to change,” said Sterling.

New beginnings

LSU’s partnership with DARPA is just one example of the agency’s new direction, thanks to DARPA’s new director, Dr. Regina Dugan.

Dugan, 47, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, is DARPA’s first female director.

DARPA recently has been criticized for focusing too closely on “deliverables” for the military, while forgoing the high-risk technology gambles that originally were the agency’s trademark.

Dugan, who was hired in part to balance the agency’s agenda, is now trying to focus on areas as diverse as advanced manufacturing, rapid developments of vaccines, cyber security, and biological sensors.

Last fall, Dugan visited six universities—Virginia Tech (her undergraduate alma mater), Texas A&M, UCLA, Caltech, Stanford, and UC Berkeley—in an effort to reopen partnerships between DARPA and universities.

“We came to a better understanding of what the agency needs to do, and then we went to the university community with a challenge for their side as well,” said Dugan in an interview with the New York Times, “which is to bring their best and brightest to the table to work on defense problems.”

According to Dugan, DARPA recognizes that it must work hard to win back the attention of top researchers in important fields, including computer science. The agency is relaxing its conflict-of-interest rules for individuals working at DARPA, making it easier for university researchers to spend time at the agency.

There also will be “a renewed emphasis on students [and] on their ability to surprise us with outside-the-box thinking,” Dugan said.

New projects

Dugan immediately set out to change the game by initiating a $40,000 prize for a balloon hunt—DARPA’s Network Challenge—that charged teams of volunteers to locate 10 large red balloons hidden around the country.

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