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11 Feb 16. Faster Than Thought: DARPA, Artificial Intelligence, & The Third Offset Strategy. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing artificial intelligence that can help humans understand the floods of data they unleashed 50 years ago with the Internet and make better decisions, even in the heat of battle. Such “human-machine collaboration” — informally known as the centaur model — is the high-tech holy grail of the Defense Department’s plan to counter Russian and Chinese advances, known as the Third Offset Strategy.
“We’ve had some great conversations with the deputy,” said DARPA director Arati Prabhakar, referring to the chief architect of Offset, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work. “In many of our programs you’ll see some of the technology components” of the strategy. But it’s more than specific technologies, however exotic: It’s about a new approach to technology.
“Fundamentally, what’s behind the push of the Third Offset Strategy is this idea that the department needs to reinvigorate our ability to develop these advanced technologies,” Prabhakar said. “If we do that at the same old pace in the same old way, there’s a strong recognition that we’re just not going to get there.”
“We build monolithic systems today with every subsystem hardwired to each other… making it hard to even figure out where the problems are,” she said. Such monoliths take too long to develop, too long to troubleshoot, and too long to update: They can’t keep up with rapidly advancing adversaries. So DARPA has an initiative to “rethink complex military systems” in a fundamental way.
A traditional weapons program, like a fighter or a ship, spends years or decades packaging all sorts of customized software and hardware together in a tightly integrated system. Every piece depends on every other, often in unforeseen ways, which makes debugging software (for example) into a nightmare. Figuring out a fault can be like unraveling “spaghetti,” said Prabhakar.
Instead of such custom-tailored, tightly integrated systems, you want a modular and open architecture where you can easily replace a component — hardware or software — without disrupting the rest of the system.
Instead of a relatively small number of pricey manned platforms, you want a “heterogeneous” mix of manned and unmanned vehicles of all kinds, from 130-foot robotic ships to disposable handheld drones. Instead of architectures designed for a specific kind and size of force, you want systems that can scale up and down as the force changes. And instead of brittle networks dependent on a few means of transmission and a few central nodes, you want a highly distributed network that stays up despite physical attack, jamming, and hacking.
Jamming and hacking are hard to combat, however. The more you network, the more easily a cyberattack can spread throughout your force. The more you network wirelessly, the more easily electronic warfare can detect your transmissions and exploit them or shut them down. DARPA is applying cutting-edge research to both these problems.
A project called HACMS — High Assurance Cyber Military Systems — applies a class of mathematics called “formal methods” to finding and closing cyber vulnerabilities. In one recent experiment, Prabhakar said, the HACMS team took the mission computer for a Special Operations helicopter, an AH-6 Little Bird, and rebuilt the software, creating a new “kernel” on top of which the AH-6’s existing programs could run.
When a Red Team of expert hackers tried to break in, they couldn’t. Even when the Red Team was given some of the HACMS source code, they couldn’t find a hole. In fact, Prabhakar said proudly, the test at one point gave the Red Team control of one of the AH-6’s onboard programs, one that runs a camera — but then the attackers couldn’t get out of the camera software when the