3 BIG questions (and lots of smaller ones) about DARPA & Make

(A post by Javier / @AlJavieera)


  1. [N.B.: For the record, we'd like to air out the following exchanges. But before going there, one disclaimer: We're not journalists. This is a big story—only the proverbial iceberg tip—and others should pursue it with more time and resources than what we are able to devote. California Watch already has a short article that is a good primer: "Pentagon taps students to build robots, drones." This is only the beginning. Web sources listed at the end. /s/ J.]
  2. Anything that helps high schoolers do cool things with science is a good thing. Technology is cool. - Rebecca Jeschke, Electronic Frontier Foundation.

    A brief Twitter kerfuffle started after this was out on the web for about a day or so:
  3. To summarize, all we did was to regurgitate a Make/O'Reilly/Otherlab press release that came out, oddly, in the middle of the SOPA debate last week. Perhaps no one planned it that way, but the news seemed to get lost in the bigger hullaballoo.

    We said something that was interpreted as Make+Co. were becoming Pentagon tools, except not even written in such offensive language. We were much more diplomatic about it! (Exact words: "working with the Pentagon;" "taking money from DARPA"). 

    Still, the bottom line is that Make, O'Reilly, and Otherlab will be getting paid by the Pentagon to bring forth the next generation of what we called "killer geeks," through a program dubbed MENTOR. In their own words, they described MENTOR as a program to train the "next generation of system designers and manufacturing innovators" exposed to the "principles of foundry-style digital manufacturing." Take your pick...

    But... Keep the following in mind...DARPA defined MENTOR's overall mission, in 2010 (emphasis added), this way: 

    "MENTOR is part of DARPA’s Adaptive Vehicle Make (AVM) program, a larger effort to dramatically compress development timelines for future defense vehicles, shift the product value chain toward high valueadded design activities and democratize the innovation process. AVM seeks a “fab-less” approach to design of correct-by-construction cyber-electro-mechanical systems, a foundry-style bitstream programmable manufacturing capability and a crowd-sourcing infrastructure for development of vehicle systems similar to open-source software today."
  4. Now, to be fair, comments on Make's website and scattered throughout social networks are giddy about a Make+DARPA alliance. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, defenders of cyber-privacy and free-speech are on the record as saying: "technology is cool." No big surprise, nor is it a surprise that Otherlab's Saul Griffith is involved with DARPA, once again. On the other hand, a small cadre of folks seem to want a better, more direct, explanation than what is currently out there (at least not buried in some Pentagon server). Some selected examples:
  5. To that last tweet, O'Reilly finally responded, (and next we'll jump into three questions):
  6. 1: Who's working for who? 
    Okay, we might be 'nut jobs,' (hey, we're artists, okay?), but did we not predict O'Reilly's response? 

    Or, take co-director Saul Griffith's blog post announcing MENTOR that starts: "DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It used to be called ARPA, and it was ARPA who funded the creation of the internet. Think of DARPA as the high-risk R&D sector of the U. S. Department of Defense. Sometimes the things they fund sound crazy, and sometimes they even are, but I personally think that they fund the more ambitious science and engineering projects in this country and get great results."

    Or Dale Dougherty: "It’s naive to think the world of tech is not engaged with the military on every level and vice versa.”
  7. Now, to quote from our original post (emphasis added): "Yes, no shit, it is excruciatingly well known that DARPA initiated what eventually gave us, most famously, the internet itself. Such factoid is often leveraged to justify current work for DARPA, as the case in point might get explained away as. Need it be reminded, though, that now the internet itself has become THE latest battlefield, under fear-mongering rubrics like a "cyber Pearl Harbor," and DARPA is well-involved in next gen cybersecurity? Many people entertain the luxurious idea that scientific research and engineering, paid for by the Department of Defense, can exist in a putative bubble outside of malice or global agression. But that's not the luxury that anyone on the receiving end of Pentagon gizmos has."
  8. In addition to what was already said, the very deployment of the internet (or TCP/IP) as the perpetual DARPA "get out of jail free card" is not just all too easy, it's counter-productive to your very case. It's a way to say 'the DoD could fund everything in the entire world, for all I care' (compare to Dougherty's quote above—not that far off). But not only that, it's also negligent of the fact that ARPA-net was born before the Vietnam war. Guys... Seriously, we haven't learned anything since then? 

    Also, just a reminder here: DARPA wasn't enlisting teenagers in high-schools when they funded packet switching, and that's a whole new ethics landscape now. Granted, 'ethics' and what the military's outreach does is already a fraught issue, given how some teenagers somewhere will end up as collateral damage, while others will be the noble prize winning nano-scientists of tomorrow. One hopes that Make knows what they're doing; it is an awful lot of trust that Make and Otherlab expect from students and parents. (Oddly enough, they also seem to be reaching out through blog posts to the "maker community" at large, when those most directly involved in this are students, teachers, and parents.) Not to mention that there is a high level of trust expected here from tax-payers who also fund the educational infrastructure onto which Mentor can now graft onto (and unlike the DoD, schools and school boards tend to involve MUCH more community involvement). 

    Besides, not to put words in the mouth of anyone at Wired mag, but this is how a reporter of theirs previously described MENTOR (emphasis added): "Darpa’s making one thing very clear: you work for us." Instead, O'Reilly argues...
  9. 2. What's being taught?
    Despite the differences of perspective in the above exchanges, it's pretty clear that Darpa pays for the program. That elemental fact isn't in dispute, we think, although it is not clear right now if private partners will also chip in, and how much—a whole other possible pretzel twist that brings many other questions. Where we disagree is what that money determines in the way of outcomes. The dilemmas and issues with such a client have been laid out in the previous passages. Now, let's think about what the "mentors" will be teaching...  

    2a. To rephrase O'Reilly's formulation in the tweet above, he is basically arguing that our "rant" is wrong on its face. If so, then what's the correct take? Presumably, by inverse logic, one is supposed to understand is that they hardly will be a funnel of young people to the military (or the military's academic industrial branches). Which begs the question, then, are they going to be transparent with students about where the money comes from, and why the military has a research budget upwards of several dozens of billions of dollars ($81.4 billion, by one estimate), even when the country is not even fighting an official war in Iraq any longer, and Afghanistan is supposedly drawing down? Or as put succinctly here:
  10. 2b. In other words, if the students will, in fact, know about the military source and objectives, then what can be further discussed about the military—freely—in an open educational environment, without censorship or fear of later losing the funding, a good grade, or a slot in the program? And what will teachers disclose about the other, not-so-benign products of DARPA research—or is the internet all they got? 

    Furthermore, Make has their own take on what to use the money for, as Saul Griffith himself wrote: "The goal is to excite and enable a new generation of hands-on makers who can collaborate and co-design more complex things than have ever been built before (at least that is my interpretation of their goals)." BUT, DARPA's goal is spelled out, as quoted above; it is to ultimately improve "defense vehicles," and they are the client here (see item #1 above). Don't forget that. 

    Continuing to the next point:
  11. 3. How will DARPA funding intersect with school politics? 
    On the Federal Business Offerings website, the DARPA press release (as also quoted in Wired) states that the grant was initially for $10 million (you may want to download and save the pdf's on that website... very informative). According to Make/O'Reilly media's press release: "The program has a goal of reaching 1000 high schools over four years, starting with a pilot program of 10 high schools in California during the 2012-2013 school year." California Watch reported that DARPA "has awarded $2 million of a $10 million program to two outfits that have joined forces" to develop the 10 school pilot phase. 

    This then points to several concerns (and here is where all of this gets much more complicated, demanding more attention from journos and researchers that know a thing or two about education, intellectual property, local politics, etc)...