In an interview this afternoon at the Defense One Summit, DARPA director Arati Prabhakar explained the history and future of the agency. And Prabhakar wants it known that Google and other commercial enterprises are not their enemy. In fact, they're more important that ever to DARPA's national security goals, as private R&D spending has slowly surpassed public spending over the past 60 years.
Recently Google has been scooping up robotics companies like Boston Dynamics and vowed to exit the military robotics market. This has led some to wonder if DARPA has any grudges against Silicon Valley companies stealing some of the US Department of Defense's (DoD) favourite toys.
Interviewer and Defense One reporter Patrick Tucker asked if Prabhakar was worried about an innovation gap with Google and jokingly wondered if Google was DARPA's frenemy. Prabhakar almost seemed offended and was quick to explain that DARPA is in no way an adversary of Google or any other company working on technologies for commercial use.
"National security is really not about us versus a private company. They're not an adversary," Prabhakar said emphatically about Google.
"They and we are worried about the problems of the world. They're going to try and go make money on it — that's what they do as a private company — and we're going to try to deal with it from the perspective of national interests," she explained. "I want to harvest what they and many, many others are investing in and driving technology forward."
According to Prabhakar, about one third of spending on research and development in the US is currently coming from the government and two thirds is coming from the private sector. In the years after World War II that ratio was flipped she said, with about two thirds of R&D spending coming from the government and one third from private sources.
"If you look as a percentage of GDP, private sector investment in R&D has just grown and grown and grown over many, many decades," Prabhakar said. "That is the innovation economy that we're all living in."
DARPA has always used contractors to develop ground-breaking technologies. But they clearly lean on private enterprise to spur technological advancement now more than ever.
"When we invested in technology DARPA could do that with the confidence that we'd have 10, 20, maybe 30 years of technological advantage over any other party," Prabhakar said. "That is not the world we live in today."
Prabhakar went on to explain that this was a fantastic development, but that DARPA was well aware that these technologies were not being developed solely by US companies for an American market. She went on to refer to the "globalisation challenge" that DARPA now faced in staying ahead of military adversaries.
"It is also an opportunity for us to not have to invest only DoD dollars to have phenomenally powerful technologies," she said. "When we use a semi-conductor component from Altera in a DoD military system we get phenomenal advantage riding off of the billions of dollars of investments that have been made."
Tucker made note of DARPA's role in creating the internet, and asked if they had another internet in the wings.
"In all seriousness, we're only 200 government employees in an office building in Arlington, but that is what we come to work to do every single day — is to make the investments that might become that kind of major capability in the future," Prabhakar said.
Image: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in April of 2014, being shown the ATLAS Robot which completed testing at the DARPA Robotics Challenge at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia; Screenshot of DARPA director Prabhakar from the Defense One Summit