Cummings sees the 1960s at ARPA as a roadmap for UK innovation. But is he drawing the wrong lessons from the agency's success?by Madeleine Gabriel / February 4, 2020 / Leave a comment
The Dream Machine, The Imagineers of War, The Pentagon’s Brain… Perhaps not phrases you’d normally associate with a research funding agency. But these are all titles of books about the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA)—an American funding body with almost mythical status in some quarters.
US President Dwight D Eisenhower set up ARPA in 1958. It was a response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first Sputnik satellite, which had caught the US by surprise. ARPA’s mission was to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.
ARPA, which became DARPA when “Defense” was added to the name in 1972, is famous for helping to bring forward many of the big innovations of the last half-century, from the internet to GPS and self-driving cars. It’s also well known for its enormous resources—it has an annual budget of over US$3 billion (£2.7 billion).
‘Get Brexit done, then ARPA’
Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief special adviser, has put a UK version of ARPA high on the government’s agenda. His WhatsApp profile apparently lists his priorities as “Get Brexit done, then ARPA.” In the post-election Queen’s Speech, the government committed to “backing a new approach to funding high-risk, high-payoff research in emerging fields of research and technology.” Civil servants are now consulting research and innovation experts about how this might be done.
So what’s the appeal of ARPA, and why has Cummings made it such a high priority? His blog gives some insights—he’s written about ARPA several times, with one 2018 post accompanied by a 47-page essay.
Cummings is interested in a particular phase in ARPA’s history—the period between 1962 and 1975—which he sees as extraordinarily productive. He focuses largely on the work of one ARPA department, the Information Processing Techniques Office, and its first head, Joseph Licklider.
Licklider, known as “Lick,” was by all accounts a visionary and highly talented manager. He’s credited with having foreseen major developments in personal computing and funded the research to make these happen. DARPA does not do its own research, but instead channels funds to researchers it sees as highly competent. Cummings explores the relationship between ARPA and Xerox’s famous PARC laboratory, which produced, among other groundbreaking innovations, the first personal computer.
He draws a few distinct lessons from ARPA’s history. The first…