Secretary of Defense
Remarks at DARPA's "Wait, What?" Future Technology Forum
Thanks, Arati, and thanks, all of you, each and every one of you, for being here today for this exciting event. You know, I actually hired Arati three years ago, and I’ll tell you, I’ve never regretted it. She’s been a fantastic DARPA director – the right leader at a moment of huge opportunity for DARPA and for our entire defense mission.
What a great mix of people you are. To me, this reminds me of the cross-section of brilliant people like yourselves from companies, universities, research labs, and government that in times past, before I even came on, helped create the Internet, GPS, and before that the jet engine and communications satellites – innovations that had enormous benefits not only for our security, but also benefitted our entire society and the entire globe.
A few minutes ago, as Arati said, I had the privilege of meeting some of the “Risers” who just rose here to be recognized. And when I spoke with them – and frankly when I look out on this crowd – I was reminded of how, and why, I got into this business. I was about 25, and had recently gotten my doctorate in physics, when I then saw the Pentagon’s then-undersecretary of defense of technology and acquisition give a speech at a physics conference about how technical thinking and technology could be applied to national security problems. And I kind of went on a lark, I didn’t have that kind of background. That undersecretary was Bill Perry, who later became Deputy Secretary of Defense and then Secretary of Defense in a progression I followed some 30 years later. He’s been a major figure in my life – a mentor, a friend, stood in for my father at my wedding. You’ve probably all had people like that in your own lives. And he helped me realize that I could apply my technical knowledge and technical skills to contribute to something bigger than myself – defending the country and making a better world for our children.
And that caught with me, and I think it has caught with the Risers I met earlier, and for all of you. This audience represents one of America’s great strengths – a fusion of our national security endeavor at the Defense Department, and the wonderful, innovative, open technology community of companies and universities that have done so much for this country. You’re one of the reasons why I feel so hopeful about America’s future. And it’s because of you that I wanted to make sure that I was here today at the opening of this conference.
Arati and your team at DARPA did exactly the right thing by not doing this in Washington – there’s a reason I often say that we in the Pentagon need to think outside our five-sided box. Because innovation is happening all over the country…on the east coast, the west coast, and here in the heartland of America. It’s happening in traditional defense companies like the one here in St. Louis, Boeing, that I happened to visit earlier today. And in some areas of technology, it’s happening most quickly in commercial start-ups and in non-defense companies. Point is, DoD has to tap into all those streams of innovation and emerging technology, and it has to do so much more quickly – and that’s why a conference like this is so important to the department and the mission.
This forum gives new meaning to the Spirit of St. Louis. Here – in the hometown of Lindbergh, the launching pad of Lewis and Clark, the gateway to the West – you have the chance to help continue our pioneering journey as Americans: innovating, investing, and partnering to secure our nation’s place on the leading edge of technology’s newest frontiers.
More than making real what seems only possible, you’re going to break through the boundaries of the seemingly impossible. Because that’s what DARPA does every day. And the stories are just incredible.
Take computer scientist professor Kathleen Fisher, who’s sitting here somewhere this afternoon. Is Kathleen here? Where’s Kathleen? You all can see her but I can’t – ah, okay. So, Kathleen Fisher. After years in a corporate research lab, she came to DARPA for a three-year tour in 2011, where she launched a program that uses so-called formal methods to make certain software – like the code behind the physical control systems of an airplane or self-driving car – to help them become mathematically, provably un-hackable. DARPA’s already made some of that source code openly available online, because this will matter for much more than defense – it can give the Internet of Things a critical foundation of cybersecurity, which it’s going to need.
Evan Fortunato, also here today – where are you, Evan? – Evan contributed through a different route. He came to DARPA from the defense industry, where he worked on a highly classified project that proved critical to the military’s cyber mission. And now he’s running his own company.
Then there’s Jeff Rogers. Jeff? He’s a physicist, they never do what they’re told. Anyway, he’s a physicist who came to DARPA in 2008 for a five-year tour. …When our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were getting injured by roadside bombs that caused traumatic brain injury, or TBI, Jeff came up with the Blast Gauge – a device that’s barely larger than a bottle cap that soldiers wear to capture data during explosions and better identify those who need emergency neurological care. Jeff was intrigued by a new DARPA discovery – one so counter to conventional wisdom that a lot of people didn’t believe it at the time – and that is, that TBI can be caused by just being exposed to the blast wave, without the soldier getting, as was previously thought, their head as a whole accelerated as it does, so to speak, from whiplash or banging their head when a bomb goes off. So he combined commercially available pressure sensors, accelerometers, and red, yellow, and green LEDs – pretty simple ingredients – that would help medics triage the wounded, and he got them developed, tested, and in the field in just 11 months. And this in a war – that’s how fast you need to do things when you’re in a war, because people’s lives depend on it. He knew it, and DARPA knew it. Jeff works at Google now, but over the last four years, tens of thousands of American troops have been equipped with those Blast Gauges – helping them to get faster treatment for what is sadly one of the signature wounds of the wars of the last decade and a half, while also giving doctors a clearer picture of how TBI occurs.
The work that Kathleen, Evan, and Jeff did with DARPA either already has, or soon will, make a real difference in the lives of our men and women in uniform. And we’re very grateful for that. Because first and foremost, it’s our people – the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines – who make America’s military the finest fighting force the world has ever known. More than anything else, they are the ones who make it great.
But secondly, and importantly, our strength also comes from the long-standing link between the technology community and the government. And that’s why I’ve made building and rebuilding the bridges between us one of my core goals as Secretary of Defense. Because going forward, we need the best people, the best technology, and the best innovation to remain the world’s finest fighting force.
Over most of the last 75 years, the bonds between us have been remarkably close. I’ve observed that from seeing it from both sides – as a technologist myself, and also serving a number of times in the Defense Department. But while our ties have endured through successes and strains, the challenges and opportunities we face today demand we strengthen our partnership, and it has to be in ways that benefit us both.
We live in a changing world, and our military’s excellence is not a birthright. It’s not a guarantee. We have to earn it again and again.
When I began my career, most technology of consequence originated in America, and a lot of that was sponsored by the government, especially the Department of Defense. Today, much more of our technology is commercial, and the technology base is global. And other countries have been trying to catch up to the breakthroughs – many of which DARPA helped develop – that for the last several decades made our military more advanced than any other.
Indeed, technologies once long possessed by only the most formidable militaries have now gotten into the hands of previously less-capable forces, and even non-state actors. Nations like Russia and China are modernizing their militaries to try to close the gap and erode our superiority in every domain – air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. And at the same time, our reliance on things like satellites and the Internet has led to real vulnerabilities that our adversaries are eager to exploit.
So to stay ahead of those challenges, and stay the best, we’re investing aggressively in innovation.
As you’ll see this week, we’re pushing the envelope with research into both new technologies, and innovative ways to apply them. And whether it’s robotics, data science, cyber defense, biotech, or hypersonic engines that can fly over five times the speed of sound, DARPA’s work is going to be critical to our future.
We’re also at the same time drilling tunnels through that wall that sometimes seems to separate government from scientists and commercial technologists – that wall, making it more permeable so more of America’s brightest minds can contribute to our mission of national defense, even if only for a time, or on and off in the course of their careers. DARPA is a model for one of the methods we’re working on, which is using on-ramps and off-ramps to bring aboard some of the best people in the most promising fields, and also have some of our people learn from outside about ways that we can do things better.
Because – I always remind people of this – we don’t build anything in the Pentagon, we’re also, because of that, we’re developing new technologies of necessity with America’s private sector and tech communities. And this forum is a part of that. That’s our system. We’ve also opened up a DoD innovation hub in Silicon Valley, where, just less than two weeks ago, I launched a partnership with over 100 companies, universities, and labs across the country to propel manufacturing of flexible hybrid electronics. And we’re making ourselves open, more open, and we have to make ourselves more agile, to work with start-ups, commercial companies, and small businesses in a way that is compatible with their business practices and their business needs.
And as we do, the American defense industrial base that’s long made our military strong, that will continue to be critical. Earlier today I was, as I mentioned earlier, at the Boeing facility, which is across town, where I met with our industry partners and saw some of their innovative manufacturing techniques and cutting-edge technologies coming out of their Phantom Works. Like all of you, and also like the many researchers and engineers doing game-changing work in DoD labs across the country, they’re also proof that American ingenuity is alive and well in the 21st century. There, as in universities, as in laboratories, as in small companies throughout the ecosystem.
I also want our partnerships with the private sector to be a two-way street – where it’s not only – where it’s not all about what we have in government to gain, but also what we all have to offer. Whether they’re time-tested relationships we’ve had for decades, like with Boeing, or new ones we’re just forging here at this conference, there’s a lot DoD can learn from our industry and tech community partners – including, another thing I talked about this morning, how to manage top technical talent. That’s been a particular focus of mine as we build DoD’s force of the future, and I expect to begin making some decisions on it soon.
At the same time that DoD is learning from industry, there’s also ways we can be helpful in return, like incentivizing companies to think more about applying their expertise to some of the vexing problems we’re trying to solve day in and day out at the Department of Defense through rapid seed funding. That’s something DARPA has long excelled at, and we need to have more of that kind of agility across the Defense Department.
Because we each have different missions and somewhat different perspectives, sometimes we may disagree. And I think that’s okay. Whether we’re developing a new product, or a new policy, the lesson to me is always the same: vigorous debate and exchange produce breakthrough ideas. One area where that’s particularly true is cyber, where DoD’s mission is first and foremost to defend our networks, and where we all have a stake in making sure the Internet remains open, secure, and prosperous. And that means we must continue to respect, and protect, the freedoms of expression, association, and privacy that reflect who we are as a nation.
Still, our success in all of this – from investing in new technologies to building new partnerships – will depend on the Defense Department having a robust budget and long-term budget certainty. Both are essential to having the best troops and the best technology. Indiscriminate cuts from sequestration – not to mention a continuing resolution – are wasteful for taxpayers, dangerous for our strategy, unfair for our people, and frankly, embarrassing in front of the world. Even though I’m not in Washington, I need to say that we need for Washington to come together behind a multi-year approach to our budgeting, and we got to start that right now.
Now, we talk a lot in the Pentagon about wanting to tap into the innovation ecosystems of America – the Silicon Valleys, the Bostons, the Research Triangles, and so on. And the truth is, over the next couple days, this convention center is going to be its own innovation ecosystem. You’re some of the nation’s most innovative and inventive physicists, chemists, and geneticists; nanotechnologists, molecular biologists, data scientists, computer scientists, neuroscientists; experts in manufacturing, in cyber, in satellites, and in space, and I could go on. With all of you in this one building, the opportunities for cross-collaboration are endless. So are the possibilities for what you can achieve.
My charge to you is this: Take advantage of being together. Take advantage of this close proximity.
Don’t wait to ask someone what they do. Talk to each other, forge relationships, share new ideas – ideas that might be thought impossible anywhere else, but could change the world with the right amount of focus. When you go home, keep the connections alive and the conversations going. And as you keep in touch with each other, keep in touch with us, too – and you can keep in touch with me, you can leave me a note on Facebook or LinkedIn, if you want.
Conferences and forums like this are critical to our ability to share information and break down barriers that block innovation. While budgetary constraints have led to restrictions on these kinds of activities in recent years, I believe that is counterproductive. The Defense Department must be able to have our scientists and researchers come together with others, like those of you here today, to promote a free exchange of ideas that drives innovation forward. So I’m directing that DoD change our policy to make it easier, not harder, for our people to benefit more from conferences like this in the future.
This is an exciting time for you to be here. For those interested in foreign policy and national security, there are tons of interesting challenges and problems to work on. And that’s true also for those who are interested in technology. But the intersection of the two is a particularly opportunity-rich environment.
The issues you’ll work on this week matter. They’re critical to our protection, to our security, and creating a world in which our fellow citizens can live their lives and dream their dreams and hug their children and give them a better future.
Helping defend your country and making a better world is one of the noblest things a person can do. And we’re grateful to all of you for doing that with us.
Before I turn it back to Arati and go see some of what DARPA’s doing in the demo hall, let me just close by saying that in coming here today, you are standing on the shoulders of history.
In 1904, as it turns out, right here in St. Louis, the World’s Fair showcased the latest scientific and industrial achievements that would come to define the future of the then still-young twentieth century – inventions like the x-ray machine, the electric typewriter, the wireless telegraph, gasoline engine, the automobile, and the airplane. Citizens of the world came to St. Louis and witnessed, as one historian later wrote, “the forefront of technological and educational advances…looking ahead to a new century that promised a better life.”
Today, 111 years later, we stand on the verge of another still-young century, one that once again promises a better life. The difference is, instead of showcasing the future, you’re going to help shape it. That’s the opportunity this forum represents – and I look forward it, and I look forward to seeing what you make of it.