Remembering Paul Kozemchak

It’s a sad, sad thing to lose a friend. To lose a good friend still in the prime of his life is tragic. Compounding it all, to lose a friend who has quietly been one of our nation’s most valuable national-security minds is just heartbreaking, on many, many levels.

That’s how I feel now that Paul Kozemchak, longtime senior leader at DARPA and one hell of a guy, has passed away.

The Washington Post ran a too-short obituary this week; I encourage you to read the full online tribute to Paul posted by his family, reflecting both his loving personality and his career’s breadth in service to the nation. I see from LinkedIn that one of his old endorsers there had simply written: “Paul knows more about the intelligence community that anyone else I know.” I could say the same thing, and I want to record a few personal thoughts and anecdotes.

Several months ago I began spending time advising a small DoD element, the Strategic Capabilities Office. I was excited about the work, in large part because of what SCO does, but also because it meant I’d be spending a lot of time at DARPA headquarters just outside Washington DC, where SCO has offices. If you like me grew up idolizing the future-inventing wizards of DARPA, you can imagine the thrill I had getting a DARPA badge, and logging in with a personal account on the actual ARPANET.

But that was only partly why I was stoked – it was mostly because I’d be able to see Paul Kozemchak frequently, or “PK” as everyone knew him. Paul has been working at DARPA for over a quarter of a century. I first met him over a decade ago while I was at DIA, and he was the well-established special advisor to the DARPA Director, and its liaison to the intelligence community. When I joined Microsoft’s Advanced Strategy and Research group in December 2007, I was delighted to invite senior government technologists to Redmond, for peek-behind-the-curtain visits to MSR labs and information-sharing on jointly-relevant research. Paul was the first person I invited, and that trip back to Redmond in the spring of 2008 was a blast. I got to know him better as a brilliantly incisive analyst, a laugh-a-minute wit, a bon vivant, an all-too-correct conspiracy theorist on world events, and most of all as a friend.

So, in September 2017 I drove to DARPA headquarters, to work in SCO’s offices on day one, and on the street outside as I searched for the parking entrance, whom did I see striding ebulliently along the sidewalk but PK. I pulled over, rolled my window down and hollered “Paul!” He hadn’t known I was coming, and was delighted. Thus began a weeks-long series of short snatches of conversation in the hallway or the lobby, each time PK saying “We’ve got to get together in the SCIF, big stuff.” We made tentative plans, canceled, remade, shifted…

Those short moments were all I was going to have. Paul was struck by a car as he was crossing that same street outside DARPA headquarters, on November 10. In the hospital, his family was with him a week later when he passed away. The memorial service is tomorrow.

I mentioned PK on this blog way back in 2008 (right). PKIn the ten years since there’ve been dinners, lunches, a million emails urbane or profane, late-night phone calls, several more trips together to the west coast, drinks on Capitol Hill… Others had the same experience, knew him longer or better, worked on more projects with him; Paul was extraordinarily popular in the euphemistic “certain circles” of DC.

From 2011-2017 I had the pleasure of serving alongside Paul on Jim Clapper’s “Intelligence Community Strategic Studies Group,” the DNI in-house thinktank of outside advisors and former IC S&T folks now in industry. We carpooled to meetings sometimes. (Paul was a master at bumming rides to Metro, which stretched into front-door-of-DARPA delivery because he was always in the middle of a fascinating story.) The ICSSG performed classified studies on demand, as a kind of red-cell or alternative-analysis team, including one short effort I led to explore “The Future of Intelligence” – Paul was on my group for that, and every meeting was a richly rewarding seminar for me, learning from him.

I’ll leave for future tributes his career contributions, but they were quiet and many, as he began his career during what is now called “the Second Offset” and was a nudging promoter for the birth of the Third Offset. The context and sense of history he brought to any topic were hard to rival. PK had studied under – and then worked with – one of the Cold War’s leading theoreticians, the titan Albert Wohlstetter (“one of the great defense intellectuals of the 20th century” per a Boston Globe profile, which mentions Paul among his protégés). PK was a figure from that founding era of a half-century of strategic stability amid global chaos. It’s difficult even now to think of future IC strategy meetings with no Kozemchak present to perturb and disrupt the groupthink, typically with wit and panache…

I always thought he had the best job in DC, at the interchange of invention and intelligence. Here’s a jokey email exchange from last summer, when DARPA’s director position was open:

PK email 1

Paul has also been a longtime fixture in our AFCEA Intelligence Committee (I described that here), and since 2010 I’ve listened as he enlightened that elite body at its monthly meetings, typically sharing an unknown R&D advance (ours or theirs) with, “Here’s something this group should know.” It always was.

Paul was always an energetic partner in planning and executing AFCEA’s annual classified Spring Intelligence Symposium, and I remember – for example – many fun moments leading up to the 2015 symposium, when we planned to have Elon Musk as our featured keynote interview, which I was to conduct onstage. It was going to be our big finale on the final afternoon of the symposium, timed to hold the audience in their seats to the end. Paul helped me devise a series of penetrating questions designed to drive Elon into a discussion of the national-security implications of AI and autonomy; he had just been helping the Defense Science Board with a landmark study on the topic. Then came word from Musk’s team that he would have to leave early – could we shift the schedule an hour? Paul volunteered to swap his own session on “S&T for Anticipatory Intelligence” to the final slot – gambling that the sell-out crowd wouldn’t just up and leave after Elon departed the stage. As I introduced Paul after getting rid of Elon, I cracked to the audience, “And now what you’ve all been waiting for, Paul Kozemchak, the only man in DC big enough to have Elon Musk as an opening act.”

Here’s a photo from that session, with Paul (left) smiling as ever over his index cards, having posed an elegantly insightful question to IARPA Director Peter Highnam:

DARPA's Paul Kozemchak, IARPA's Peter Highnam.jpg

I’m sad I’ll never again hear Paul ask another question, pose another challenge, solve another puzzle, make another joke. And the irony of having joined him in the DARPA building only to lose his friendship so quickly makes me even sadder.

It has made me look up something I recalled from years ago reading Tip O’Neill’s autobiography. That legendary Speaker of the House, who popularized the line “All politics is local,” had early on memorized a poem, which he was fond of reciting in packed Boston pubs or meeting halls throughout his career. It’s about friendship and staying in touch with old friends. I’ll close with the poem, and the thought of seeing PK one last time.

Around The Corner 

by Charles Hanson Towne (1877-1949)

Around the corner I have a friend,
In this great city that has no end,
Yet the days go by and weeks rush on,
And before I know it, a year is gone.

And I never see my old friend’s face,
For life is a swift and terrible race,
He knows I like him just as well,
As in the days when I rang his bell.

And he rang mine but we were younger then,
And now we are busy, tired men.
Tired of playing a foolish game,
Tired of trying to make a name.

“Tomorrow” I say! “I will call on Jim
Just to show that I’m thinking of him,”
But tomorrow comes and tomorrow goes,
And distance between us grows and grows.

Around the corner, yet miles away,
“Here’s a telegram sir,” “Jim died today.”
And that’s what we get and deserve in the end.
Around the corner, a vanished friend.

#  #  #

 

 

 

 

Bing vs Google, the quiet semantic war

On Wednesday night I had dinner at a burger joint with four old friends; two work in the intelligence community today on top-secret programs, and two others are technologists in the private sector who have done IC work for years. The five of us share a particular interest besides good burgers: semantic technology.

Oh, we talked about mobile phones (iPhones were whipped out as was my Windows Phone, and apps debated) and cloud storage (they were stunned that Microsoft gives 25 gigabytes of free cloud storage with free Skydrive accounts, compared to the puny 2 gig they’d been using on DropBox).

But we kept returning to semantic web discussions, semantic approaches, semantic software. One of these guys goes back to the DAML days of DARPA fame, the guys on the government side are using semantic software operationally, and we all are firm believers in Our Glorious Semantic Future.

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DARPA crowd guru gets a new lab

It’s been a little over two years since I came back to the tech private sector from my government service, and it’s great when we have other folks take the same path, for it improves the knowledge of each side about the other. Today we’re announcing that Peter Lee, currently the leader of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Activity’s innovative Transformational Convergence Technology Office (TCTO), is joining Microsoft to run the mighty flagship Redmond labs of Microsoft Research.

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The scientist who gave DARPA ChemBot a holographic Twitter

If that title seems a bit LSD-fueled, the subject matter warrants it. Here comes some Chemistry gone wild!

First, have a look at this bizarre video. It stars a soft robot, or chemical robot – “ChemBot.” Even the experienced geeks at IEEE Spectrum are calling it “by far one of the coolest and weirdest robot prototypes we have ever seen.”

This particular prototype by iRobot and University of Chicago researchers was just unveiled, at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems this past week. (More on the conference here.) It was built in response to DARPA’s interest in chemical robots, a program run by Dr. Mitchell Zakin.

The DARPA “ChemBots” page describes the program as creating “a convergence between materials chemistry and robotics through the application of any one of a number of approaches, including gel-solid phase transitions, electro- and magneto-rheological materials, geometric transitions, and reversible chemical and/or particle association and dissociation.”

What’s the anticipated DoD mission use? In DARPA’s words, “With ChemBots, our warfighters can gain access to denied spaces and perform tasks safely, covertly, and efficiently.”  Or, as CNet’s “Crave” gadget blog puts it, “the weird little blob inflates and deflates parts of its body, changing size and shape–and scaring the living daylights out of us. We don’t know exactly when ChemBot will join the Armed Forces, but we can only beg: please, oh please, keep it away from us.” 🙂

 Does Mitch Zakin Dream of Electric Sheep?

With that kind of geeky appeal, this video has been gathering some Internet buzz over the weekend, appearing on several tech blogs. But the better story is the scientist behind the science. Several of us have been following Mitch Zakin’s work for a while, primarily because he is also the PM for the Programmable Matter Program — the “novel physics” of “a new functional form of matter, based on mesoscale particles, which can reversibly assemble into complex 3D objects upon external command.”

There is revolutionary promise for such composability in multiple fields, not just defense. Zakin described it several years ago in a speech as “a concept so simple, yet so revolutionary that it pushes even the DARPA envelope. A vision that has profound implications for how we think about chemistry and materials. A vision that could provide our warfighters with meaningful technological surprise.”

Zakin is a demonstrably brilliant scientist, of the sort you expect to find at DARPA. Indeed, in that same speech (“The Next Revolution in Materials“) which he gave at DARPA’s 25th Systems and Technology Symposium a couple of years ago, Dr. Zakin said: “I joined DARPA because it is unfettered by conventional wisdom.” 

One area where he has been exploring beyond traditional boundaries is in developing “the infochemistry project,” which combines the powers of chemistry and information technology. In an exotic illustration, Dr. Zakin is directing a research program on “Chemical Communications,” which I’m not sure I fully understand but which sounds like some sort of holographic persistent Twitter:

The Chemical Communications Program is exploring innovative methods to develop self-powered chemical systems that can encode an input string of alphanumeric characters (i.e., a message), convert the message to a modulated optical signal, and transmit it repetitively to a receiver. 

The ultimate goal of this program is to develop a small replicator device, with the form factor of a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) or cell phone that―

  • Permits the user to input an arbitrary 60-character alphanumeric message.
  • Translates the message into an appropriate set of modulated chemistries.
  • Embeds these chemistries into a disposable substrate (the transmitter).
  • Ejects the substrate for deployment.

The replicator device will enable warfighters to generate disposable optical transmitters in real time, each with a user-specified message.  It will be compact, lightweight, and powered by batteries or solar cells.                        – DARPA website, Chemical Communications Program

With projects like these under his belt, Zakin is credited with reviving the chemistry discipline at DARPA, which had fallen away over the years. But now he’s scheduled to leave the agency in 2010. He is uncertain where he’s heading, but perhaps he can be persuaded to spend some time with like-minded souls in Microsoft Research; I suspect many there would find his infochemistry approach very appealing.  

An interesting profile of Dr. Zakin in the journal Analytical Chemistry notes that “Academia is one option. Venture capitalism is another. Zakin has launched so many basic science research projects that have the potential of becoming commercial products that he says, ‘it’s almost a sin not to look at all that from the other side.’ ”

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Test for Prediction Markets: They Say Obama, but Polls Say It’s Tied

Fact: According to the latest Rasmussen poll released Saturday July 12, and promptly headlined by the Drudge Report, “The race for the White House is tied. The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll for Saturday shows Barack Obama and John McCain each attract 43% of the vote.” Newsweek is reporting a similar result in its own poll, with Obama moving down and McCain up (“Obama, McCain in Statistical Dead Heat“), and other polls increasingly show a similarly close race.

Analysis: I’ve been tracking the growing divide between two quite different methods purporting to offer statistical predictive analysis for the November presidential election. Polls are saying one thing, but Prediction Markets are saying another. 

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Innovation in Robotics: Government Uses?

Fact: Last week’s Automatica 2008, the big international robotics and automation trade-show, had “over 30,000 trade visitors from around 90 countries,” visiting 900 exhibitors’ booths, according to the conference wrap-up

Analysis: When I spoke recently at an IARPA conference in Orlando, and was asked to give a glimpse into Microsoft’s vision of R&D trends, one of the possibly surprising areas I highlighted was robotics.  We’re making a major push in that area, for reasons that might not be intuitive based on an old-fashioned impression of what Microsoft offers in the government realm.  More on the intelligence community’s potential use below.

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How to Find Research: Here, There, Everywhere

FACT: The Washington Post today has a story in the Business section (“Intelligence Agency Joins U-Md. Research Center“) about the relationship between IARPA and the University of Maryland, the location of the planned new IARPA headquarters. 

ANALYSIS: UMd has a set of valuable relationships with the public- and private-sector national security community, and the IARPA startup is just the latest agency to benefit.   Proximity is key, for research and bureaucracy.  In Maryland’s case, IARPA Director Lisa Porter told an IEEE interviewer last month that “It’s nice not to be sitting right next to one particular agency. It’s also nice to be near a university because we’re sending a message that we want to bring in nontraditional partners: academia, industry. It sends a nice message that we’re embracing the broad community to help us solve these challenging problems.”

I lament sometimes that Charlottesville (home to my undergraduate alma mater) is a good two hours away from DC, as even that distance puts a frustrating limit on the amount of joint work that winds up being done with Virginia faculty and students. 

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