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Fund Quickly, Fail Quickly

Entry 1724, on 2015-06-24 at 23:16:11 (Rating 3, Comments)

I don't think there is much doubt that the major contributing factor to the quality of our modern lifestyle (life span, physical goods, health, access to basic essentials, etc) is science and technology. Some might claim that it is contemporary political systems, especially democracy; or efficient economic systems, especially free-market capitalism, which are the main contributors, but in many ways these are just mechanisms for delivering sci-tech's benefits.

You might say there is a chain of activity, with science first providing the fundamental information about how the world works, then technology taking that information and utilising it by creating real solutions, then business providing a way to distribute the results. Additionally you might include politics which coordinates the whole process and philosophy which provides the fundamental basis for everything but the more cynical amongst us might suggest that those two are more hindrance than help!

In case you were wondering, there is a reason for this rather theoretical introduction, and that is a discussion of the achievements of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is an agency of the US Department of Defense created (as ARPA) in the 1950s and which is responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military.

While its official purpose is to create military technologies those same technologies have become important in the world as a whole. The two best examples of significant, every day developments are the internet and GSM, but there are others as well.

The predecessor to the internet was Arpanet which had the first host-to-host connection on a fully operational packet-switching network in 1969. Later that year a four-node network was in use and the first email was sent across it in 1972. The name "internet" was first used in 1973.

The GPS project started in 1973 and was originally intended to be only used by the US military but is now available for free to all users, probably because there is no way to stop it being used and because the Russians have an alternative anyway.

Other important technologies which started partly or wholly as DARPA projects include the predecessor to the Unix operating system which in turn became systems used on the vast majority of the computing devices today: OSX, iOS, Linux, and Android (that's right, Windows doesn't really matter).

And voice recognition systems, like Siri, also started there as a project to create a system for use by soldiers in the field.

I could go on, but there are plenty of web sites with details, so now is time to get to my real point. That is firstly, is this good value considering DARPA's budget is (in 2012) $2.8 billion annually; and secondly, how did an organisation like this manage to do so many truly innovative and brilliant things?

On the first point, $2.8 billion sounds like a lot (and it is) but it's less than what Coca Cola spends on advertising (in 2010 that was $2.9 billion). What positive outcomes have we got from years of Coke advertising? Absolutely nothing, in fact there would be a good case to say it has caused a lot of harm. So in many ways the DARPA budget is great value.

What about the second point? Well, a catch-phrase I have heard relating to DARPA is "fund quickly, fail quickly". That might sound like the worst possible thing but maybe not. It's difficult to make progress if there is a constant fear of failure, and not generating good value for money (or what is deemed good value by funders and managers) is a fear many other researchers have.

Amongst the well known successes there have no doubt been many failures but it seems that the military have always been less accountable for their vast budget and that extends to DARPA too. I think that overbearing accountability from management and accounting (who I like to say know the price of everything and the value of nothing) is the number one reason for mediocrity in the world today and that might explain why true innovation so rarely comes from private companies.

of course, there are counter-examples of that, such as IBM's research division and Xerox PARC which are well known sources of new technology from the not too distant past, but they were operated semi-autonomously and avoided the usual smothering oversight from traditional business management.

I'm not saying scientists and engineers should be left on their own without any "adult supervision" at all... actually I am, because there are numerous instances where this has worked and it's only when the fear of failure is eliminated, and the courage to attempt the impossible (another principle at DARPA) is encouraged that real progress can be made. That's what we need more of: fund quickly, fail quickly.


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