Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Director Regina Dugan recently sat on an panel sponsored by Washington Post Live, the live journalism arm of The Washington Post Co. The panel — titled “Innovation and Ideas” — was part of a special series on American Competitiveness: What Works in which corporate executives, political leaders, economists and other experts charted a path for U.S. competitiveness, describing big obstacles — as well as reasons for optimism.
As part of a special section in last week’s Post summarizing the panels, Dugan penned a piece describing her view of ideas and innovation — and touched on a recent breakthrough enabled by advances in computing. Here it is (after the jump):
I would say, don’t be afraid of failure. Really go for it. I have a bar on my desk that is engraved with the following question: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? It’s an amazingly powerful question. When you ask it, you begin to understand how the fear of failure limits you — not failure itself, but the fear of failure.
We [at DARPA] have a number of things that we’re investigating and advancing, such as the ability to make vaccines in tobacco plants — perhaps the first healthy use of tobacco plants ever in the history of the world.
In tobacco plants, we can make vaccines in weeks and months instead of nearly a year. So, in the event of a pandemic or a biological warfare attack, we can make vaccines much more quickly.
The agency’s historical success in breakthrough innovation is based on the focus: big-reach science together with driving application. We have to break what is now a long-standing impression that big breakthrough innovation happens in a linear fashion. It doesn’t… Innovation is a discipline.
We use a variety of strategies for catalyzing innovation, and one of them is prize-based competitions. These type of challenges can dramatically increase the number and diversity of people who contribute ideas. When you can do this, you often get breakthroughs that you don’t expect.
We have a program — a game — called Foldit. It was originally sponsored at DARPA, and it is essentially the tetris of protein folding. Understanding the three-dimensional folded structure of a protein is very important for understanding disease and for developing treatments for disease. A gamer said, “Oh, look, lots of small manipulations, lots of detailed interactions — that’s a game.” And so they built Foldit. Just last September, the three-dimensional protein structure for the retroviral protease that contributes [to] AIDS in rhesus monkeys was solved.
For 15 years that problem was unsolved in the scientific community. The gamers solved it in days.
I think we have not yet completely harnessed that which we can from large numbers of people contributing to [solving] big problems.
(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)