IARPA’s First Director: Dr. Lisa Porter

Fact: IARPA has a new Director.

Analysis: The well-known DARPA (part of DoD) will now at last have a full-fledged intelligence-community counterpart. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity - prosaically called “IARPA” – was created last year, but has been stepping out slowly because [/opinion on] of lack of leadership [/opinion off], with only “interim” place-holder leaders.  Many of my friends who were recruited or absorbed into IARPA at the beginning, as it swallowed the old Disruptive Technologies Office for example, felt that the new org was spinning its wheels without traction, for lack of a strong and stable hand at the helm.  [Note also this recent post on IARPA.]

Today the Director of National Intelligence named Dr. Lisa Porter as IARPA’s first Director. She’s been at NASA, and before that DARPA itself.  She and I were at Stanford at around the same time, although hanging in different crowds – she working on her doctorate in Applied Physics while I was over doing the real heavy lifting in the hardest of all sciences, Political Science :-)  

I’ve never met her, unless I don’t recall from old DARPA visits, so I did a tiny bit of surfing to clip a few salient tidbits from her DARPA work.

While not all of it seems immediately relevant to IC work, certainly she knows the business/managerial side of running large-scale (and distributed) R&D efforts. Given the criticality of developing a next generation of truly innovative analytic and collection capabilities – world events being what they are – her work is cut out for her. I hope she begins blogging (hint hint) and/or speaking widely to share her vision and inspire great work.


1) Some points on her overall earlier work at DARPA, from a contemporaneous bio: “As senior scientist in the Advanced Technology Office, … she created and managed several programs in diverse technical areas ranging from fundamental scientific research to multi-disciplinary systems- level development and integration efforts. Two of her programs focused on developing physics-based predictive design tools that leveraged advanced computational fluid dynamics. The Helicopter Quieting Program focused on developing the capability to design quiet rotor blades that would not negatively impact aircraft performance. The Friction Drag Reduction Program focused on developing the capability to implement friction drag reduction technologies on naval platforms. Elsewhere in the article she is quoted on the FDR program: “She said, today, the average speed for transit from the United States to Saudi Arabia, for example, is about 20 to 25 knots. “The carriers, for example, can go faster, but they don’t because you can only go as fast as your slowest ship. So if you can raise everybody else’s speed to the carrier’s, you’ve actually accomplished something.”

2) My interest in the potential disruptive advances of manycore processing (now being pursued aggressively by Microsoft Research) was triggered by some of the details in descriptions of Dr. Porter’s FDR Program:

The project’s broad scope will allow DARPA to develop a multiscale modeling capability. Without such a capability, drag reduction research will remain as hit-or-miss as it was 30 years ago. But by understanding the physics of the system at every level, researchers will reduce not only drag but also the inefficiencies that used to be inherent in studying drag. “We’re pushing for a whole new modeling paradigm,” says Lisa Porter, DARPA’s program manager on the project. “People are realizing that experimentation at the large scale is very expensive, so we need tools to narrow down [those experiments].” A computer model of microbubble physics, for example, allows researchers building large-scale physical models to test much smaller sets of implementation schemes. With tools that represent the physics at many different scales working in concert, researchers can predict the behavior of any given system. That saves money and time, and it puts more fuel-efficient ships in the water.

The team hopes to address these simplifications in future runs and thus more closely model the real-world physics. They are also developing a version of NekTar for Linux clusters that creates a hybrid of two popular parallelization schemes, MPI and OpenMP. This hybrid code allows users to efficiently harness the power of computing systems, like the newer clusters, in which data have to be passed among discrete compute nodes more often because nodes consist of fewer processors. “On older SMP (Symmetric Multi-Processor) machines, if you stayed within a node, you had very little latency,” explains Karniadakis. With fewer processors in the cluster nodes, however, latency creeps in. The new version of NekTar, basically, “creates a virtual SMP” and speeds calculations.

Even the current simulations thrill DARPA, though. “The performance has been amazing,” says Porter. “DARPA sets the bar very high, and I can’t believe how far we have already come.”

3) Speech Recognition: Dr. Porter was the POC on a DARPA BAA in 2004 trying to develop  “Advanced Speech Encoding (ASE),” aiming to achieve “ultra-low bit rate (ULBR) voice encoding (300 bps) with acceptable intelligibility, quality, and aural speaker recognizability in acoustically harsh environments. It is believed that novel noise-immune sensors will enable this capability.”  There would potentially be IC benefit from these capabilities, as the program hoped to “characterize the nature of subauditory (nonacoustic) speech and its potential utility as an alternative means of communication in acoustically harsh environments.”

4) And, before there was a JIEDDO dedicated to addressing the IED threat in Iraq (and elsewhere), Dr. Porter was apparently a DARPA lead on a months-long collaboration with NAS, NRC, and NAS BCAST (Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology), called the “Committee on the Review of Existing and Potential Standoff Explosives Detection Techniques” which met at least four times over the course of its study. “DARPA has requested that the National Research Council (NRC) undertake the present study in order to address the issues and problems related to standoff explosives detection. Standoff explosives detection is the ability to detect explosives at a distance. Two main scenarios can be envisioned for the application of standoff explosives detection. The first is broad-area surveillance, particularly at events with large crowds such as the Super Bowl. A second scenario is the ability to detect a suicide bomber before the bomber is able to reach his or her target and detonate the explosive. Low-probability, high-consequence situations such as these are the main priority for DARPA in its request for this study.”

 My take-away? As we all know, the IC needs real improvement, and tangible results from its R&D efforts.  The real-world IED problem in Iraq took the stand-off explosive challenge far beyond the old “Super Bowl terrorist” scenario described in Dr. Porter’s DARPA work. I couldn’t find info online about any results of that DARPA/NAS committee’s study… but perhaps they’re classified and not at my fingertips.

DARPA has often been criticized in recent years for a track record of long-running research with little bang for the buck.  I’d guess that Dr. Porter now realizes full well the dirty, ugly immediacy of problems like this one for her new work leading IARPA.

UPDATE: Friday Jan. 11, 2007, 4:12 pm

A reader sent me a link to a site which reprints Dr. Porter’s farewell email to her staff at NASA, which includes the line: “I have been offered a really exciting opportunity to be the first Director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which will sponsor innovative research that will yield revolutionary game-changing capabilities for the intelligence community.” 

That’s the spirit!

And yet another good sign, likely to echo in improved morale at IARPA, is the fact that the site - “NASA Watch,”  not known as overly friendly to NASA or its key executives – marked Dr. Porter’s departure by publishing directions to her upcoming farewell party with a sincere “Editor’s Note … No doubt the Market Inn will be jammed at COB on 1 February with sad HQ personnel.” 

NASA’s loss is the IC’s gain.

[Note also this recent post on IARPA and another recent post about Dr. Porter here.]

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7 Responses

  1. [...] I’ve noticed that one of the single-most-viewed posts in this six-month-old blog has been a profile of Dr. Lisa Porter, when she was appointed the first director of IARPA, the advanced-tech crowd for the intelligence [...]

  2. x Een plaatje zegt alles, toch ? o Het volledige rapport is hier te vinden. Lees natuurlijk a de blogposting. e r

  3. [...] community’s version of DARPA, called IARPA – with some background on the organization and its goals.http://lewisshepherd.wordpress.com/2008/01/09/iarpas-first-director-dr-lisa-porter/Read “RE: DARPA Lifts the Covers on Vulcan Engine” at Military Aviation / Air Forces Forum… [...]

  4. [...] But more striking, right off the bat, is the fact that DNI Dennis Blair has an impressive number of women in high-ranking senior leadership positions. And it’s not just the number, but the particular positions they hold that I like: Dawn Meyerriecks is DDNI/A&T, Priscilla Guthrie is Assistant DNI and Chief Information Officer, Marilyn Vacca is Assistant DNI and Chief Financial Officer. Lisa Porter leads the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency IARPA (I’ve written about her before). [...]

  5. Dr. Lisa Porter I believe has what it takes to endure the challenges of government sponsored wars [Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia], and in the monitoring of geographical exchanges of nuclear weapons [Iran and Brazil]. She is special and the best of her skills [alertness, responsibility, and collaborative intelligence] is yet to come. She will surely blossom in mind and spirit.

    King of the North

  6. Just a qu8estion without evidence but,Is this perhaps why a few days after scandle and resignation CIA David Petraeus was making press interviews in Perth Western Australia where USA has Navy Tower Zero spy Radio and several related research projects in WA again this Acedemic boss a woman inteligence connected (He a womanizer?) I wonder. Conspiracy theorists have a big debate about some new tech cancer risk radiating signal covering Broom to Tasmanis?

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