The Crazy Government Research Projects You Might've Missed in 2019


Self-aware artificial intelligence, biology-based computers and “smart” surveillance are just a few.

If you imagine the U.S. research community as a family party, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is your crazy uncle ranting at the end of the table and the government’s other “ARPA” organizations are the in-laws who are buying into his theories. 

DARPA and its counterparts—the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy—are responsible for conducting some of the most innovative and bizarre projects in the government’s $140 billion research portfolio. DARPA’s past research has laid the groundwork for the internet, GPS and other technologies we take for granted today, and though the other organizations are relatively new, they’re similarly charged with pushing today’s tech to new heights. 

That means the futuristic-sounding projects the agencies are working on today could give us a sneak peek of where the tech industry is headed in the years ahead. 

And based on the organizations’ 2019 research efforts, the future looks pretty wild.

DARPA Pushes the Limits of AI

Last year, DARPA announced it would invest some $2 billion in bringing about the so-called “third wave” of artificial intelligence, systems capable of reasoning and human-like communication. And those efforts are already well underway.

In March, the agency started exploring ways to improve how AI systems like Siri and Alexa teach themselves language. Instead of crunching gargantuan datasets to learn the ins and outs of a language, researchers essentially want the tech to teach itself by observing the world, just like human babies do. Through the program, AI systems would learn to associate visual cues—photos, videos and live demonstrations—with audible sounds. Ultimately, the goal is to build tech that actually understand the meaning of what they’re saying.

DARPA also wants AI tools to assess their own expertise and inform their operators know when they don’t know something. The Competency-Aware Machine Learning program, launched in February, looks to enable AI systems to model their own behavior, evaluate past mistakes and apply that information to future decisions. If the tech thinks its results could be inaccurate, it would let users know. Such self-awareness will be critical as the military leans on AI systems for increasingly consequential tasks.

One of the biggest barriers to building AI is the amount of computing power required to run them, but DARPA is looking to the insect world to lower that barrier to entry. Through the MicroBRAIN program, the agency is examining the brains of “very small flying insects” to get inspiration for more energy efficient AI designs. 

Beyond improving the tech itself, DARPA is also looking to AI to tackle some of the most pressing problems facing the government today. The agency is funding research to teach computers to automatically detect errors in deepfakes and other manipulated media. Officials are also investing in AI that could help design more secure weapons systems, vehicles and other network-connected platforms.

Outside of artificial intelligence, DARPA is also working to develop a wide-range of other capabilities that sound like they came straight from a sci-fi movie, including but not limited to satellite-repair robots, automated underground mapping technologies and computers powered by biological processes.

IARPA Wants Eyes in the Sky 

Today, the intelligence community consumes an immeasurable amount of information, so much that it’s virtually impossible for analysts to make sense of it in any reasonable amount of time. In this world of “data abundance,” intelligence officials see AI as a way to stay one step ahead of adversaries, and the tech is a major priority their bleeding-edge research shop.

AI has numerous applications across the national security world, and in 2019, improving surveillance was a major goal.

In April, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity announced it was pursuing AI that could stitch together and analyze satellite images and footage collected from planes, drones and other aircraft. The program, called Space-based Machine Automated Recognition Technique, essentially looks to use AI to monitor all human activity around the globe in real-time.

The tech would automatically detect and monitor major construction projects and other “anthropogenic activity around the planet, merging data from multiple sources and keeping tabs on how sites change over time. Though their scopes somewhat differ, the SMART harkens back to the Air Force’s controversial Project Maven program, which sought to use artificial intelligence to automatically analyze video footage collected by drones.

IARPA is also looking to use artificial intelligence to better monitor human activity closer to the ground. In May, the agency started recruiting teams to help train algorithms to follow people as they move through video surveillance networks. According to the solicitation, the AI would piece together footage picked up by security cameras scattered around a particular space, letting agencies track individuals’ movements in crowded.

Combine this capability with long-range biometric identification systems—a technology IARPA also began exploring in 2019—and you could have machines naming people and tracking their movements without spy agencies needing to lift a finger.

The Funding Fight at ARPA-E

The Energy Department’s bleeding-edge research office, ARPA-E, is also supporting a wide array of efforts to advance the nation’s energy technologies. This year, the organization launched programs to improve carbon-capture systems, reduce the cost of nuclear energy and increase the efficiency of the power grid, among other things.

But despite those efforts, the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to shut down the office.

In its budget request for fiscal 2020, the White House proposed reducing ARPA-E’s funding by 178%, giving the agency a final budget of negative $287 million. The administration similarly defunded the office in its 2019 budget request

While it’s unclear exactly how much funding ARPA-E will receive next year, it’s safe to say its budget will go up. The Senate opted to increase the agency’s funding by $62 million in its 2020 appropriations, and the House version of the legislation included a $59 million increase. In October, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee advanced a bill that would provide the agency with nearly $2.9 billion over the course of five years, though the bill has yet to receive a full vote in the chamber.