DARPA tech chief envisions the future

Ron Brachman's curiosity about robots programmed to think on their own dates back to his childhood in New Jersey. It was the 1960s, "Star Trek" first appeared on television and putting a man on the moon became a remarkable reality.

When he was in high school, Brachman and his father, an electrical engineer, built a robot equipped with a light and photo sensor that allowed it to follow a taped line on the floor of his basement, even in darkness. He became a science-fiction aficionado, watching Mr. Spock and "The Twilight Zone."

As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Brachman developed more academic hobbies as he studied logic, mathematics and computer science. In doctoral work at Harvard University, he added his love of linguistics to his research on building a computer capable of reasoning — his lifelong pursuit.

"There's a lot to try to understand about the kind of reasoning and learning that people do that's very different than sort of classical, [mathematician John] von Neumann, step-by-step computer algorithms," Brachman said. "So I just got extremely interested in this."

Brachman later earned a reputation as a world-renowned expert in artificial intelligence while working as a researcher and executive at AT&T Bell Laboratories. During his 15 years there, he helped build the CLASSIC and PROSE systems that use artificial intelligence to speed up the processing and delivery of equipment for companies.

Now Brachman works at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as director of its Information Processing Technology Office, where he oversees programs that study and develop cognitive computing.

He wants to solve the same problem he pondered as a teenager watching "Star Trek" — how to get people and computers to collaborate. Military officials think robots, with their superior memory, can aid generals in command and control centers, Brachman said.

"My sense of what it takes to put together a cognitive agent that is successful, like a really good executive assistant, is that you just don't put all these [technologies] in a pot and stir and hope that it all adds up," he said.

He will rely on his boyhood aspirations, research knowledge and industry management experience to build the Defense Department's version of Lt. Cmdr. Data, the intuitive but emotionless robotic officer in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Brachman's team will take an eclectic approach to building a robot similar to Data.

"The challenge we have asked people to look at is how do we put all of these pieces together," Brachman said. "Maybe we don't need the world's best computer vision or speech-understanding technology. But what would happen if they both work together?"

DARPA spends $29 million per year on its Perceptive Assistant That Learns program, which develops robots programmed to think. The agency and its contractors will first develop an architecture that considers reasoning, learning, perception, language and action for robots, he said.

"One of the things that's amazing about humans is our ability to sort of focus on problems at hand — to use experiences when necessary, to do an analytic kind of reasoning and deduction when necessary, to draw sketches," Brachman said. "We bring these things to bear at the right time somehow — almost magically, if you will."

If anyone can make this kind of project a reality, Brachman can, said Eric Sumner, a colleague and friend for 14 years.

"He's energetic, positive and obviously very bright," Sumner said. "He's good at judging talent, bringing [people] together and making them better with his technical judgment — and his energy." Sumner worked with Brachman at AT&T Bell Laboratories. He is now a partner at Open Data Partners LLC, a firm that helps companies use data.

Sumner believes DARPA can build a thinking robot by 2030, but he thinks the agency will likely field elements of the robot's artificial intelligence, such as reasoning and speech recognition, sooner.

Nurtured by computer and science-fiction fantasies, Brachman's imagination will help turn artificial intelligence possibilities into reality, Sumner said.

"He can see into the future," Sumner said. "Then he sets a vision that people can go toward."

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.

Featured

  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from Shutterstock.com

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group