The Weird and Wonderful World of IARPA

May 12, 2021

If research at the nation’s intelligence agencies is already giving the United States an edge over its adversaries by developing specialized tools or products, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) takes problem-solving to the next level. It can take years of experimentation — and failure — to advance IARPA’s understanding of a particular problem.

IARPA, an organization within ODNI, invests in what it calls “high-risk” research programs, meaning it tackles “complex, interdisciplinary problems for which it’s entirely probable that none of the proposed solutions pans out,” says Dr. Carl Rubino, program manager for two IARPA research programs that are designed to advance natural language processing technologies.

But on the flip side of taking risks is the potential for a high payoff. IARPA’s scientists are asked to attempt the “seemingly impossible” by considering not just what problems can be solved now, but how the program can be used for future needs. The successful programs, he says, “provide our nation with an overwhelming intelligence advantage.”

Another bonus is the potential to discover something wonderful along the way. Dr. Rubino says some of his favorite results have occurred when IARPA research projects are used in “novel, useful and unexpected ways.” For instance, under the MAEGLIN (Molecular Analyzer for Efficient Gas-phase Low-power INterrogation) program, a state-of-the-art micro-gas chromatograph was built to detect trace amounts of hazardous chemicals from a distance. The chromatograph has also shown to be useful as a breath sensor to detect signs of acute respiratory distress syndrome associated with COVID-19.

IARPA Program Manager Carl Rubino delivers a talk on IARPA’s contribution to low resource language technology development.

IARPA Program Manager Carl Rubino delivers a talk on IARPA’s contribution to low resource language technology development.

Dr. Rubino manages IARPA’s MATERIAL and BETTER programs. MATERIAL aims to revolutionize how the IC gathers intelligence from foreign text and speech. Systems have already been developed under this program to translate, transcribe, retrieve and summarize information in lower resource languages (languages with less presence on the internet).

In the following scenario, BETTER works like this: An analyst interested in MERS disease studies in the Middle East selects a few sample documents in English, and then asks the system to learn from that selection to retrieve similar documents in Arabic. After that initial selection, the analyst highlights what they found useful from the first set of returned documents, and then the system uses this input to improve the search capability yet again. In other words, the system learns and improves based on the user’s activity.

Other IARPA research programs address the ability to identify or recognize individuals from a long range or high elevation, the need for quieter unmanned aerial vehicles that rely less on ground support equipment, and the power to determine whether someone has stolen biological intellectual property — like if a custom yeast strain from one company appeared in a competitor’s lab, as illustrated in a scenario describing IARPA’s FELIX project.

IARPA’s program managers work closely with U.S. Intelligence Community stakeholders to identify their biggest challenges.

“They teach us about their tradecraft and use cases, and help us identify and validate appropriate research directions,” Dr. Rubino says. “For both of my programs I continue to engage dozens of experts from multiple organizations.”

Program managers then identify experts from organizations that have a research relationship with the federal government — such as Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) or University Affiliated Research Centers (UARCs) — who help develop the research plan.

Then, after a public solicitation, program managers select proposals based on technical approaches, budget, and the diversity that the solicitors’ approaches offer to meet the goals. These are usually experts from academia and industry.

IARPA’s main objective, Dr. Rubino says, is to pioneer scientific advancement. And for him, the excitement of the challenge is a rush.

“Engaging world-renowned experts is extremely fulfilling. The chance to be a student again at my age is also a definite plus, but the major pull factor was the unique prospect of being able to make a difference for both science and my country,” he says.

IARPA is looking for more program managers to broaden its research portfolio, and that means bringing your unique and cutting-edge idea with you. It’s actually part of the application. Learn more on IARPA’s careers page.