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September 10, 2015 – U.S. Department of Defense, By Cheryl Pellerin

ST. LOUIS, September 10, 2015 — Defense Secretary Ash Carter stood at the crossroads of the future yesterday in St. Louis as the first speaker at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Wait, What? Future Technology Forum.

Carter joined DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar on stage at the sold-out conference, where 1,400 attendees from companies, universities, research organizations, federal agencies and other nations -- with more participating online -- came together to share visions of the future and discuss the technologies that are shaping it.

Defense Secretary Carter and DARPA Director Prabhakar view a robotic limb demonstration
Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks with Arati Prabhakar, Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as they view the robotic limb exhibit and demonstration at DARPA’s “Wait, What?" future technology forum at the America’s Convention Center Complex in St. Louis, Sept. 9, 2015. (DoD photo/ U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)

The forum, taking place here Sept. 9-11, offers a range of plenary and breakout sessions and an exhibit area for scientists and engineers to demonstrate a selection of DARPA programs.

Speaking with media later on the exhibit floor, Carter said his focus on innovation is a continuation of something he’s done since becoming defense secretary.

Building Bridges

“A major commitment of mine … is to the connection between the innovative community and the Department of Defense that has historically been so important to us, and making sure that we build and rebuild those bridges,” he told the audience.

The bridges link the Defense Department to academia, to companies big and small, and to companies that have worked for the Defense Department and those that haven’t, the secretary said.

“All those parties are represented at this fantastic conference that the gifted people at DARPA have put on — with the best title in the world,” Carter added.

During her opening remarks, Prabhakar described DARPA as the agency tasked with preventing the kind of technological surprise that the Soviet Union’s Sputnik created in 1957.

Breakthrough Technologies

“At DARPA today we’re working to outpace cyberattacks, to turn the tables on infectious disease. We’re working to rethink complex military systems … we’re starting to figure out some dramatic new ways to use the electromagnetic spectrum … and much more,” she said.

Defense Secretary Carter talking with reporters at DARPA forum on future technology
Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks with reporters at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “Wait, What?” future technology forum at the America’s Convention Center Complex in St. Louis, Sept. 9, 2015. (DoD photo/ U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)

DARPA does such work because its role in the community is to make the pivotal early investments in breakthrough technologies to create huge new possibilities for national security, the director added.

“Our job is to take the risk that is part and parcel of reaching for huge impacts and to do that work to advance national security capabilities in big ways, in fundamental ways,” Prabhakar said.

Today, in a world of “kaleidoscopic uncertainty,” she said, questions about other nations also demand DoD’s attention: How will China choose to play its growing role in the world? What is Russia doing in Europe? What will North Korea and Iran do next?

Future Unfolding

“Understanding all of those factors and understanding what they mean for our security and for global security and then getting ready for whichever future unfolds — that’s the work of the Department of Defense and many other parts of government in our nation every single day,” the director said.

National security issues are DARPA’s focus, she said, “but we also know that the way we make our contribution to national security — if we’re going to do our job of creating and driving technological surprise — only happens if we have a … wide-open embrace of research and technology, and that’s what this meeting is all about.”

The context for research, development, creativity and innovation is increasingly global, Prabhakar added, and contributions in that realm are the way strong and vibrant countries play a role on the global stage, she said.

Dreaming and doing, she said, “is what we’re going to start doing in St. Louis here today.”

‘We Live in a Time ...’

The director asked the audience — What future can be imagined from this time and what future can be built beginning in this time?

“We have such interesting ingredients to work with because we live in a time in which we can build macro materials with nano precision, one atom at a time. We live in a time in which we can play a quantum duet with light-controlling matter and matter-controlling light,” she said.

“We live in a time,” Prabhakar said, in which machines are starting to learn, adapt and communicate as they execute their programs; a time in which mathematics allows theorems to be proven about the behavior of software.

“We live in a time in which we can engineer not just microbes but entire microbial communities, and a time in which we’re starting to coax the long-held secrets of neural codes from the human brain,” the director added.

“It’s our time to step up to the plate,” she said — to dream beyond today’s experience and to change what’s possible.

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