Book: The Pentagon’s Brain

The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency by Annie Jacobsen.

Summary DARPA nee ARPA is a U.S agency in the Department of Defense responsible for emerging technologies. If you’ve heard of it, it’s likely because you know that the internet started in part from one of ARPAs projects, a packet switching network called the ARPANET. This book details the history of DARPA, initially created after the launch of Sputnik and the realization that future technology superiority was a key military goal. The book starts with details of the connections between the JASONs, a group of elite scientists and DARPA, and then hits the highlights of much of the research that was funded by DARPA. Sadly my own DARPA funded research (from my previous life) on self-correcting quantum computer was not mentioned 😉

Rating The book shines mostly in the detailed motivations of the agency and it’s relationship with the JASONs. One the technological front I found it a bit frustrating in lack of details (OK so some of this is likely because it is still classified, but others were at a fairly superficial level), and would have likely even more color on the people who ran DARPA. But it’s a good book to get a broad understanding of the agency, where it came from, and what it’s had its hands in.

Speculation One of the most interesting concepts in the book is the idea that the type of research DARPA focused on needed to be “pre-requirements”:

“There is a kind of chicken-and-egg problem in other words, in requirements and technology,” Rechtin explained. “The difficulty is that it is hard to write formal requirements if you do not have the technology with which to solve them, but you cannot do the the technology unless you have the requirements.” The agency’s dilemma, said Rechtin, was this: if you can’t do the research before a need arises, by the time the need is there, it’s clear that the research should already have been done.

Would that it were the funders who want 3 month reports on milestones have this sentence read to them daily!

Technologies that don’t exist do have one specification, that they are not currently specified. If one wanted to work formally in this area, wouldn’t it be cool if we had a formal specification of what we know. A map of the totality of our technological knowledge. If we could then dice this into different views we could, potentially, see where our gaps are, the places where in the totality of all the formal specification, we are missing knowledge. And use this to discover technologies.

One Reply to “Book: The Pentagon’s Brain”

  1. I can already see a group of techno-monks writing illuminated manuscripts of the specifications of known technical knowledge. The question is would they complete the task?

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