Darpa has a well-earned rep for some of the most ambitious, over-the-top research programs of all time. But this might be the most over-the-toppest of all. The very first step? Create a unified mathematical language for everything the military sees or hears.
The armed forces are overwhelmed by all the data its various sensors are sniffing out. They want a singe data stream that combines drone video feeds, cell phone intercepts, and targeting radar. Darpa's solution, found in the brand-new Mathematics of Sensing, Exploitation, and Execution program is to design an algorithm that teaches the sensors how to interpret the world—how to think, how to learn, and what data, accordingly, to collect.
Sensors "process their signals as if they were seeing the world anew at every instant," Darpa laments in its call for algorithms. To put it in Philosophy 101 terms, existence is, to a sensor, what William James called a "blooming, buzzing confusion": an unmediated series of events to be vacuumed up, leaving an analyst overloaded with unsorted data. Wouldn’t it be better if a sensor could be taught how to filter the world through a perceptual prism, anticipating what the analyst needs to know?
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