Five groundbreaking inventions funded by the U.S. government
Many of the tech innovations we rely on every day would likely not have been possible without a helping hand from Uncle Sam. Government funding has spurred the development of everything from the Internet to the technologies at the heart of smartphones, including microprocessors, memory, LCDs, lithium-ion batteries, and GPS chips. Many grew out of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, established in 1958 by President Eisenhower, now known as DARPA, after "Defense" was appended to the name in 1972.
The fact that so many government-funded moonshots eventually become mainstream is why people are so excited about what will happen when the first exascale computers arrive, starting as soon as next year. As with the Internet and GPS, the effort to build exascale computers has been underwritten by U.S. taxpayers. These machines can handle 10 to the 18th operations per second (a 1 followed by 18 zeros―an inconceivably large number), making them many times more powerful than the fastest computers we have today.
The possibilities that come with exascale―like accelerating drug discovery, fighting climate change, and improving battery efficiency―are enormous. It's impossible at this point to know where exascale will enter our everyday lives, but it doubtless will, in ways both ordinary and extraordinary.
Here are five other notable technologies that came to us courtesy of the U.S. government.
That Roomba scuttling around your living room gobbling up dust bunnies can trace its lineage back to its DARPA-funded granddaddy, Shakey the Robot. Developed in 1966 at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International), the 6-foot-tall computer on wheels could be programmed to wobble from one location to another, control light switches, open and close doors, avoid obstacles, and respond to typed English-language commands. This seminal experiment in artificial intelligence retired in 1972 and was inducted into Carnegie Mellon University's Robot Hall of Fame in 2004. Its descendants include a growing cadre of domestic robots, aerial drones, and the Mars Rover.
In February 2003, Dr. Anthony Tether, then director of DARPA, issued a challenge: The first driverless vehicle to successfully navigate a 142-mile course through the Mojave Desert would earn its creators a $1 million prize. Fifteen cars lined up for the first DARPA Grand Challenge in March 2004; none made it past 7.4 miles. The next year, DARPA upped the prize money to $2 million. Five cars completed the course, with Stanford Racing Team's Stanley finishing first in 6 hours, 53 minutes. Though fully autonomous vehicles have yet to be approved for use on U.S. roads, the technology that enables them―AI-enhanced video, radar, lidar, and ultrasonic sensors―are now standard on late-model cars.
If you've ever found out you're predisposed to certain diseases―or discovered that your great-great-great-aunt Winifred was a direct descendant of King Ethelred the Unready―you can thank the Human Genome Project. Funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy, the 13-year project cost just under $4 billion but by 2013 generated nearly $800 billion in economic benefits. Besides helping researchers identify genetically linked diseases such as breast cancer, the techniques developed to map every twist and turn of human DNA have enabled consumer-grade services like 23andMe and Ancestry.com.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
When magnetic resonance was first used to measure the properties of atomic nuclei in 1946, no one expected it to become a standard diagnostic tool for uncovering damage to soft tissue in humans. And it might never have reached that point if not for $90 million in grants from the National Science Foundation from 1955 through 1990. Now, nearly 40 million MRI scans are conducted each year in the U.S. alone, to detect everything from torn ligaments to tumors.
Intelligent voice assistants
Anyone who's talked to an electronic device and had it respond in an eerily human-like way has several U.S. government agencies to thank. Like the U.S. Army Research Office, which funded the development of algorithms used by early digital signal processors. Or the NSF for supporting research into speech recognition software in the 1980s. And of course DARPA, which awarded $22 million to SRI in the early 2000s to develop a Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (CALO).
Capitalizing on the speech recognition technology developed for CALO, SRI formed a startup called Siri in 2007, which was acquired by Apple in 2010. She made her public debut as part of the iPhone 4S in October 2011. Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and other chatty AI-enabled imitators soon followed. Now if only we could get them to shut up.
What technological marvels will exascale computing ultimately produce? Batteries that last for decades? Vaccines that wipe out all known diseases? A solution to the planet's climate crisis? We're about to find out.
It's impossible at this point to know where exascale will enter our everyday lives, but it doubtless will, in ways both ordinary and extraordinary.
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