What is DARPA’s Strategic Computing Program?

The Strategic Computing Plan:

By the early 1980s expert systems and other AI technologies, such as image and speech understanding and natural language processing, were showing great promise. Also, there was dramatic progress in communications technology, computer networks and architectures, and computer storage and processing technologies. Robert Kahn (1938– ; Fig. 23.1), who had become Director of DARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) in 1979, began thinking that DARPA should sponsor a major research and development program that would integrate efforts in all of these areas to create much more powerful computer systems. At the same time, there was concern that the Japanese FGCS program could threaten U.S. leadership in computer technology. With these factors as background, Kahn began planning what would come to be called the “Strategic Computing” (SC) program. Kahn had been a professor at MIT and an engineer at BBN before he joined DARPA’s IPTO as a program manager in late 1972. There he initiated and ran DARPA’s internetting program, linking the Arpanet along with the Packet Radio and Packet Satellite Nets to form the first version of today’s Internet. 

He and Vinton Cerf, then at Stanford, collaborated on the development of what was to become the basic architecture of the Internet and its “Transmission Control Protocol” (TCP). (TCP was later modularized and became TCP/IP, with IP standing for Internet Protocol.) Cerf joined DARPA in 1976 and led the internetting program until 1982. For their work, Kahn and Cerf shared the 2004 Turing Award of the Association for Computer Machinery Kahn thought that AI, especially expert systems, could play a major role in SC. Recall that in the mid-1970s DARPA support for AI research suffered during George Heilmeier’s tenure as the DARPA Director. A major casualty was the speech understanding program. The SC program could revitalize AI research, but more importantly in Kahn’s view, it would help transfer promising AI techniques out of university laboratories and into actual applications. Alex Roland, who wrote a well-researched book about the history of the SC program, 

The SC program would support, coordinate, and manage research and development for all of the technologies in the pyramid. It was to become a billion-dollar program – the largest computer research and development program ever undertaken by the U.S. government up to that time. Kahn’s boss was Robert Cooper, who became the DARPA Director in July 1981. Cooper was enthusiastic about Kahn’s ideas for the SC program, although he differed from Kahn about research strategy and how to describe the program. As Alex Roland wrote3 Kahn said build the technology base and nice things will happen. Cooper said focus on a pilot’s associate and the technology base will follow. One paradigm is technology push, the other technology pull. One is bubble up, the other trickle down. . . . The tension between them stressed SC through much of its history.

Because of its size, the SC program would have to be “sold” to those Congressional committees overseeing DARPA’s budget. Cooper knew that emphasizing (indeed, promising) specific military applications was how to sell Congress. He was right as far as convincing Congress was concerned, but in the end technology pull didn’t work so well. One factor in helping to convince Congress about the need for the SC program was the Japanese FGCS program. According to Roland “Congress was more exercised by Japan’s Fifth Generation program than either the Reagan administration or the computer community [including Kahn and Cooper].”4 The publication of a book5 about the Japanese project by Edward Feigenbaum and Pamela McCorduck had the effect of strengthening these concerns. In the preface to their book, they asked “Will we rise to [this crucial challenge]? If not, we may consign our nation to the role of the first great postindustrial agrarian society.” 

They further warned that . . . our national self-interest, not to mention our economic security, does not allow us [to ignore the Japanese project]. Information processing is an $88-billion-per-year industry in the United States, and its loss would be disastrous. The default of this American industry, which has led the world for decades, would be a mortal economic wound. . . . The superior technology usually wins the war – whether that war is martial, entrepreneurial, or cultural. In June 1983, Feigenbaum testified before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. According to Roland he told the committee “the era of reasoning machines is inevitable. . . 

It is the manifest destiny of computing.”7 Kahn was persuaded to yield to Cooper’s vision about how to frame the plan, and it was finally written up in October 1983.8 Funds to support SC were approved at a level of $50 million for work to begin in fiscal year 1984. (One Congressional staff person even recommended that DARPA spend “a substantially higher amount.”) During the decade from 1983 to 1993 DARPA spent just over $1 billion on SC.9 The plan envisioned supporting two main thrusts, namely, major projects that would build specific applications and basic research to develop the “technology base” that would be needed for those applications. I will describe aspects of each of these in the following sections

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