Today the news is filled with images of Apple devotees standing in line for hours waiting to get their hands on the new iPhone 4S. One of the key features they are excited about is Siri, the iPhone’s virtual assistant. What many people don’t know is that Siri began in the labs of DARPA (the Defense Department’s Mad Scientist Research Wing), as you can read on Wired’s Danger Room blog. The project started ten years ago, with a grant from DARPA to SRI, International. The project didn’t work out exactly as planned, so SRI set up Siri Incorporated to further develop and commercialize the product. Apple is rumored to have paid $150-200 million for the company. Interestingly, Siri is now more powerful than anything DARPA originally planned.
I bring this up because the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) recently held its big annual conference in the Washington, D.C. Convention Center. All sorts of toys were shown off. Danger Room highlighted many of the cooler gadgets, including Raytheon’s Universal Translator App, TransTalk (Android only); ITT’s smart phone encryption device, GhostRider; Harris’s “wearable cell phone tower”; Saab’s tank-protecting missile pod; and AAI’s war planning tablet.
If you clicked on any of those articles, you’ll note they all end in the same way: it’s just a shame the military will likely experience budget cuts in the very near future. Military purchasing will likely have to be greatly reduced. Additionally, as U.S. forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, there may not be as pressing a need for some of this weaponry. Many of the military contractors will have to do what SRI did: spin off these developments into a separate company and seek out commercial opportunities.
Now don’t hold your breath for missile pods on your next car, as much fun as that would be in heavy traffic. Unless you’re Batman, I don’t see how that will have uses outside of the military. But what about the laser and radar systems in the pod? DARPA is also working on autonomous vehicles. In an urban environment, your car will need to accurately and quickly measure nearby objects and how they move in relation to your vehicle. The laser system might be useful there. Or it might help autonomous planes when taxiing prior to landing or after takeoff.
As far as the apps, networking devices, and intelligent tablets, these could easily transfer to the private sector almost immediately. Rudimentary translation apps already exist. Creating a TransTalk with a more limited vocabulary for tourists should be relatively easy compared to programming idiomatic Pashto. As more people become concerned about dwindling privacy, I think many people would like to be able to encrypt their phone (and the e-mails, pictures, and text messages they send) to some degree. But I don’t think many people want to pay GhostRider’s $1,500 price tag. Networking devices the size and roughly the shape of a dumbbell might face stiff competition from hotspot devices the size of a deck of cards. But a table-top tablet with a Siri-like intelligence would be useful for project managers, engineers, and architects, particularly with team members coordinating from around the globe.
But if Siri teaches us anything, it’s that what emerges in the private sector often looks nothing like what was imagined in the public sector. Moreover, it might even be more powerful, smaller, and cheaper. Table-top devices shrink to tablets or phones. Artificial intelligence becomes smarter and more able to conform to users’ needs. GhostRider could become a $50 add-on from your cellphone provider. I guess we’ll all be surprised in five to ten years when AUSA technology premieres in a different convention center.
What do you think? Will military technology make the jump? What will it look like when it does?