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.” ūüôā

 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‚Äē

  • 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.                        РDARPA 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‚Äôs almost a sin not to look at all that from the other side.’ ‚ÄĚ

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DNI Flags at Half-Mast

Only the second-ever Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, resigned today effective immediately. As the Associated Press reported this afternoon in the wake of the announcement, “Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr. is temporarily serving as acting national intelligence director… McConnell’s letter did not explain why he resigned before the Senate’s confirmation of his replacement. President Barack Obama has nominated retired Adm. Dennis Blair to be the next national intelligence director.”¬†
Analysis:¬† Given the impending Senate hearings on Denny Blair’s confirmation and the expected smooth sailing, most people I know were mildly surprised that McConnell jumped ship today, rather than waiting for a formal turnover to a confirmed Blair. McConnell has had¬†a solid, successful track record of leading the IC in an era of long-needed reform, while contributing to a track record in his tenure of zero terrorist attacks on American soil.

odni-red-flagsBut then my inbox pinged with another notice from the Office of the DNI: release of¬†“The 500-Day-Plan Update at Day 400” (download the PDF version here).¬† It contained a graphic depiction of the troubling challenges remaining – actually using graphic “red flags” to mark areas at risk.¬† More on the flags¬†below.

Those who work in and with the intelligence community have been intimately familiar with the DNI’s 500-Day Plan.¬† When it was first drafted I was still in government and had my tiny slice of input into its composition through the interagency review process. Its release was hailed by some (“ODNI Earns Kudos for 500-Day Plan,” in Federal Computer Week) and greeted with a yawn in some sectors of the community itself. “Another reform plan? I’ll make room on the shelf.” Continue reading

Way Ahead and Far Behind

Today’s Washington Post has a story on its front page: “Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages.”

Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.”

“What does that mean in 21st-century terms? No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking.”¬† -Washington Post

Some say that whoever has been responsible for information technology in the White House itself should be fired — but then perhaps the change of Administration just took care of that ¬†ūüôā¬†

Overall, this situation is familiar to anyone who has worked in what I call “Big-G¬† IT” or the information technology of a federal government agency. I’ve argued about its challenges and sub-optimality before: see my previous pieces on “Roadmap for Innovation: From the Center to the Edge,” and more specifically “Puncturing Circles of Bureaucracy.”¬† In that latter piece back in March of 2008, I wrote about the “the defensive perimeters of overwhelming bureaucratic torpor,” and the frustrating reality within much of Big Government: “Federal employees have an entire complex of bizarrely-incented practices and career motivations, which make progress on technology innovation very difficult, not to mention general business-practice transformation as a whole.”

Here’s the truly frustrating, mind-bending part: it isn’t always true!¬† Other elements of the White House have cutting-edge, world-class technologies operating day in, day out.

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Swap Panetta and Blair: A Modest Proposal

First, a quick story from when I was working in government.

Not long after the initial establishment of a “Director of National Intelligence,” the DNI CIO held an inaugural “DNI Information Sharing Conference” in Denver in the summer of 2006. I was asked to sit on a panel about “Innovation across the Intelligence Community,” representing the Defense Intelligence Agency and sharing the stage with two counterparts, from the CIA and NSA.¬† Our panel chair was Mr. CJ Chapla, then the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the old Intelink Management Office, redubbed “Intelligence Community Enterprise Services,” an office now under the Office of the DNI (ODNI). CJ asked the three of us to describe briefly the goals and projects we were each working on, and in seriatim that’s what we did for 90 minutes or so.

When it was time for questions, the very first audience-member asked: “It seems that each of you are independently working on, and paying for, very similar kinds of technology projects.¬†It would make sense to combine or rationalize the work, so why are you continuing to do it independently?” Continue reading

Sales Guy vs Web Dude

The website where I first saw this video¬†wrote, “This would be funny if it weren’t so¬†true.”¬† No – it’s funny because it’s so true!¬† Yes, even in government IT settings.

The video’s here;¬†adolescent language warning, a la South Park. If you don’t get the jokes, just reboot your system. 3 times.

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Required Reading on Innovation and Patents

FACT:¬† If you’re a fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s tremendous books (“The Tipping Point” and “Blink“), then you probably read the New Yorker magazine just to get his articles.¬† He has a new piece this week, “In the Air: Who Says Big Ideas are Rare?” in which he describes the phenomenally appealing work of the legendary Nathan Myhrvold and his current gig running¬†“Intellectual Ventures,” often mistaken for a VC firm.¬† Gladwell recounts the facts that Myhrvold “graduated from high school at fourteen. He started Microsoft‚Äôs research division, leaving, in 1999, with hundreds of millions.”¬† It is what he’s done since then that grabs the mind, particularly if you’re interested in invention and innovation:

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