Impossible research project? This federal agency wants to fund it

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Aladdin, a current IARPA project, is designed to sift through massive quantities of video and produce accurate, actionable analysis. (IARPA)

For the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, it’s all in, all the time.

In an annual Broad Agency Announcement released this month, the research wing of the U.S. Intelligence Community solicited proposals to fund “high-risk, high-payoff” projects that could give American espionage the upper hand against adversaries.

IARPA’s nine-to-twelve month “seedling” grants are designed to assess grains of potential in areas that might otherwise be deemed unworthy of exploration — in IARPA’s own words, these funds allow scientists to “take an idea from disbelief to doubt.”

If a level of reasonable doubt is exceeded, IARPA can forge ahead with a fully-funded three to five year research initiative; if not, then it’s on to the next opportunity.

“[IARPA] is about taking risks rather than going for quick wins or sure bets. In high-risk research, failures are inevitable,” the agency website indicates. “Failure is acceptable so long as the failure isn’t due to a lack of technical or programmatic integrity and the results are fully documented.”

Modeled after the the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — which became famous as the home of the Pentagon’s “mad scientists” — IARPA was founded in 2006 with a mandate to create “revolutionary new opportunities” to be leveraged by the sprawling collection of agencies that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community. Past projects have included cybersecurity programs, advanced biometrics and facial recognition software, and even an artificial intelligence known as ICArUS.

The BAA requests project proposals across the spectrum of IT and intelligence, but singles out verticals that it considers particularly critical, including anticipatory intelligence, analysis, data collection and operations enhancement.

Multiple contract awards are anticipated, according to the announcement; however the text went to great lengths to stress the high bar IARPA expects any successful project to get over.

“Offerors should demonstrate that their proposed effort has the potential to make revolutionary, rather than incremental, improvements to intelligence capabilities,” the announcement stated. “Research that primarily results in evolutionary improvement to the existing state of practice is specifically excluded.”

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