Darpa’s New Recruits: You, Your Grandpa and Your Dog

(WIRED)   Perhaps you think you’re too fat, too old or too busy to help fight America’s wars. Perhaps you’re not even a human being. The Pentagon’s way-out research arm begs to differ. The military can use your talents — whether you stand or four legs or on two.

Right now, only 1 percent or so of America’s population contributes to the country’s defense (and offense). In its new budget, Darpa announces a $25 million effort to build tools that’ll rope in the other 99 percent. (Doesn’t exactly explain how. But think crowd-sourcing, plus a touch of machine learning to pair peeps up.) The program is called “Unconventional Warfighters,” and the idea is to tap three pools of potential contributors.

First, Darpa is looking to plug in “futurists, inventors, hobbyists and tinkerers who approach military problems from an unconventional perspective.” Then, the agency would like to call upon “military Veterans, including disabled Veterans, who have deep knowledge of the missions and the operational environment.” Lastly, Darpa wants those veterans’ pets.

“Animals are another class of potential contributors,” the agency explains in its budget. “This is not a new idea, as animals possessing special abilities such as dogs and dolphins have been used before to perform military tasks such as mine detection. The new aspect to be examined under Unconventional Warfighters is the potential for creating new sensor, processing, communication and actuator systems specially adapted to enable animals to execute tasks beyond their natural capabilities.”

No, I’m not sure what that means, either.

But get past the giggle factor, and there’s a strong core to Darpa’s program. There are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people in this country who are willing to offers their skills and their time to help respond to a disaster or a political crisis — think the Haiti earthquake, or the Middle Eastern revolt. It stands to reason there are a good number of folks who are willing to contribute to national security, too. But the American system doesn’t have a good way of allowing those people to plug in, unless they’re able to join the ranks of the uniformed military or the contractor corps. “Unconventional Warfighters” is a possible way around that.

It’s one of a number of Darpa programs looking to tap the power of the masses, despite the departure of their crowdsourcer-in-chief. Earlier this month, the agency announced a $10,000 challenge to design the next generation of military vehicles.

China and Russia allegedly use citizen militias to help them hack and harass enemies online. Maybe this is the first step towards an American cybermilitia. (I’m still a little unclear on the canine component, though.)

Photo: Army


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