The Obscure Government Agency Trying to Predict the Future

DARPA's sister organization IARPA is focused on turning the web into a crystal ball

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Whether you realize it or not, you're probably helping the government predict the future right now. From the websites you visit to the tweets you send, you and every other internet user leave behind a wake of data that's kept researchers busy looking for patterns. The potential has also captivated an obscure and relatively new government intelligence agency known as the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).

Formed in 2007 and falling under the jursidiction of the national director of intelligence, Iarpa is the sister organization of DARPA, the crazy futurists at the Defense Department that invented the internet, and boasts some similarly sci-fi-like ambitions. Indeed, IARPA, which has the ominous slogan "BE THE FUTURE," does not meddle in mild-mannered research goals either. According to the agency's website, it only "invests in high-risk/high-payoff research programs that have the potential to provide our nation with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries." So far the details of some on-going IARPA projects are fairly vague but also fascinating:

Open Source Indicators (OSI) Program
According to The New York Times, the eventual plan for the Open Source Indicators program is to build an automatic data collection system that will "use publicly accessible data, including Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries" in order to create a "data eye in the sky." Eventually, The Times says, researchers could use such a system "to predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability, just as physicists and chemists can predict natural phenomena." The Times notes that similar government programs, like DARPA's Total Information Awareness program, have raised privacy concerns in the past. Fair enough.

Foresight and Understanding from Scientific Exposition (FUSE) Program
IARPA says it's looking for people "to 'scan the horizon' for the early signs of technical emergence, and take advantage of the resulting capabilities and applications, can gain a significant competitive edge." Among the proposals the FUSE program is considering, one stands out from New York University detailing a plan track emerging technologies using a linguistic algorithm that scans things like Apple patent filings.

Finder Program
The name of this initiative matches its goal in a delightfully literal way. IARPA wants to fund a project that makes it easier to find places in photographs. In the absence of geolocation tags, it's no easy task for an intelligence analyst to look at an image or video and figure out where it's from. Think about the part in spy movies where the spies pull up a picture of Matt Damon in a random European city and piece together exactly where he is--this program wants to automate all that. It's actually a pretty popular problem. Microsoft is trying to figure this out, too.

Great Horned Owl (GHO) Program
The goal of this program couldn't be more straight-forward: create a silent drone. IARPA warns that drones, officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are often picked off before they reach their target, because they make noise, so IARPA is looking for someone to get rid of the noise. This is one of many initiatives the government has floated in an effort to improve the drone fleet. Chief among them are some DARPA-funded project that set out to make drones that look like bugs.

Synthetic Holographic Observation (SHO) Program 
Just as DARPA improves upon existing technology to give soldiers the upper hand, IARPA is also committed to crossover successes. In this instance, it's the kind of 3D technology that made watching Avatar so fun. In its call for proposals IARPA says it "seeks dynamic, high-performance, synthetic holographic 3D workstation display systems, simultaneously viewable by multiple people with the unaided eye." Yes, it's just like the thing that Princess Leia uses in Star Wars. The Associated Press also reports that IARPA has developed "'cloaking' technology that can bend radar around an object to make it appear it's not there."

Does all of this sound like fun? Well, in addition to researchers to build stuff, Iarpa is looking for a few good futurists to run their programs. "Good ideas" is listed as a job requirement.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mislabeled the OSI program as the FUSE program. They're now correct and we've added more information about the OSI program.

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