DARPA: Show us how to weaponize benign technologies

DARPA program wants to see what security threats are on the horizon

improv
Credit: DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was created years ago because the US didn’t want to be surprised again by any major new technological developments (specifically in response to the surprise launch of Sputnik in 1958) and ensure that the US should do any surprising.

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With that in mind the agency is launching a potentially scary program called “Improv” that looks at what DARPA calls today’s “bustling tech marketplace with an inventor’s eye and imagine how easily purchased, relatively benign technologies might be converted into serious security threats.”

The technology scope of Improv is intentionally broad and the program is structured to encourage participation by a wide range of technical specialists, researchers, developers, and skilled hobbyists. Performers may reconfigure, repurpose, program, reprogram, modify, combine, or recombine commercially available technology in any way within the bounds of local, state, and federal laws and regulations, DARPA stated.

“DARPA often looks at the world from the point of view of our potential adversaries to predict what they might do with available technology. Historically we did this by pulling together a small group of technical experts, but the easy availability in today’s world of an enormous range of powerful technologies means that any group of experts only covers a small slice of the available possibilities. In Improv we are reaching out to the full range of technical experts to involve them in a critical national security issue,” said program manager John Main in a statement.

“DARPA’s mission is to create strategic surprise, and the agency primarily does so by pursuing radically innovative and even seemingly impossible technologies,” said Main. “Improv is being launched in recognition that strategic surprise can also come from more familiar technologies, adapted and applied in novel ways.”

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DARPA said it intends to fund selected Improv proposals through a short feasibility-study phase, during which performers will refine their ideas and compete for the opportunity to build prototypes. DARPA will evaluate the results of that work, and a subset of the prototypes will proceed to a detailed evaluation regimen. If performance warrants, DARPA may advance the relevant capabilities in separate follow-on efforts.

DARPA will hold a Proposers Day on Tuesday, March 29 to discuss Improv.

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