Sep 11, 2015 ยท 4 minutes

The Wait, What? Conference got underway Wednesday in St. Louis with all the trappings of a run-of-the-mill tech event: keynote speakers, demos, breakout sessions, Powerpoint galore, intermezzo electronica and, of course, mingling.

But a few things about the conference, which wraps up today, make it stand out from the humdrum ranks of technology conferences. For one thing, the keynote speaker was the sitting Secretary of Defense. For another, the event is permeated with nationalism -- with frequent mention of the supremacy of the American armed forces and invocation of the concept of duty. The final day begins with a panel featuring reflections on 9/11.

For all its friendly, breezy atmosphere, What, What? is after all a professional networking event hosted by the US Defense Department, under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.

Wait, why?

Why should DARPA, the DoD’s 57-year-old technology seed-funding arm, which has successfully given birth to so much of the technology underlying today’s Silicon Valley miracle, put together such a public plea for its own relevance?

The event features presentations and demos around a number of DARPA’s current research areas, from AI to genetics to neuroscience. But it also features something that isn’t normally associated with the agency: proactive PR.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar got things started with a laser-focused sales pitch for the agency.

“Our soldiers make America’s military the finest fighting force the world has ever known,” Carter said, to applause. “They’re the ones who make it great. But secondly it comes from the long standing link between the tech community and the government...Going forward, we need the best people, the best tech, the best innovation in order to remain the best.”

Carter’s speech reprised many of the themes he addressed a few weeks back at a launch event in Silicon Valley.

“We’re drilling tunnels through that wall that sometimes seems to separate government from scientists and commercial technologists… making it more permeable, so that more of America’s brightest minds can contribute to our mission of National Defense,” he said Wednesday.

Listening to the Secretary, one gets the sense that the DoD is confronting an image problem.

“We have to make ourselves more agile to work with startups and commercial companies and small businesses, in a way that is compatible with their business practices and needs as well as our needs.”

Prabakhar, a physicist and former venture capitalist, seemed more comfortable in the tech conference milieu  (she knows what to do with her hands without a podium, for example) while presenting a similar appeal.

“As all of us are engaged in science and technology, and as it becomes more and more a global endeavor, let’s also remember that our work serves national purposes,” she said in her opening remarks.

Both Carter and Prabakhar made somewhat desperate appeals to the concept of sharing with the government.

“I hope you’ll tell us about the technologies that you think will have the greatest impact in the future, and I hope you’ll all start thinking about what you can do to give back to this country whose freedoms empower all of us,” Prabakhar said.

Said the Secretary of Defense:

“When you go home, keep the connections alive and the conversations going, and as you keep in touch with each other, keep in touch with us, too. And you can keep in touch with me. Leave a note for me on Facebook or LinkedIn if you want.”

What gives? What forces are the Defense Department countering with this dog and pony show?

Some possibilities:

  1. Crisis management. Edward Snowden, et al, have given classified government projects an enduring bad name among an emerging generation of top flight technologists.
  2. Talent war. The success of big Silicon Valley companies with an accelerating penchant for gobbling up top academic researchers en bloc and throwing them at long-term 'moonshot' projects may have dealt DARPA a losing hand in a war for talent. In a Silicon Valley posting, researchers can take on big sexy projects, with big sexy compensation, becoming rich and nerd-famous without the discomfort associated with working on behalf of and reporting to the world’s premiere war department.  
  3. Budget concern. All this makes it harder for DARPA to justify its $2.7 billion budget to Congress, at a time of recurring budget battles on Capitol Hill, along with budgetary uncertainty stemming from political posturing far beyond its control.

Whatever the reasons, it seems DARPA’s place in the nation’s technology ecosystem is shifting.

Setting aside what threats to national security this might give rise to, does all this add up to a threat to the future of the tech industry? Can Silicon Valley survive cut off from DARPA seeding the basic science underlying the products of future decades? It’s never had to do so yet.