DARPA: Sci-Fi Satire or Legitimately Scary?

Whatever happened to the insect cyborgs?  Or the Iron Man suit?

For years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or D.A.R.P.A., of the U.S. Department of Defense, has been developing projects that seem more at home in sci-fi action film than in reality, but recently that seems to be changing.

Earlier this year DARPA hosted a workshop entitled “Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies,” as part of a research initiative to answer the question, “What makes a story?”  Researchers hoped that by gaining a better understanding of story-telling, they could chart these models and apply them in situations “salient to security concerns.”

Now DARPA is turning its presumably robotic eye toward social media.  Wired‘s Adam Rawnsley reported Friday on the agency’s newest venture, the Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) project.

Rawnsley writes that SMISC goals are two-fold: “First, the program needs to help the military better understand what’s going on in social media in real time — particularly in areas where troops are deployed. Second, Darpa wants SMISC to help the military play the social media propaganda game itself.”

Further, Rawnsley states that:

SMISC is supposed to quickly flag rumors and emerging themes on social media, figure out who’s behind it and what. Moreover, Darpa wants SMISC to be able to actually figure out whether this is a random product of the hivemind or a propaganda operation by an adversary nation or group. Of course, SMISC won’t be content to just to hang back and monitor social media trends in strategic locations. It’s about building a better spin machine for Uncle Sam, too. Once SMISC’s latches on to an influence operation being launched, it’s supposed to help out in “countermessaging.”

DARPA’s latest projects aren’t nearly as easy to joke about as the development of killer robots, and call further into question the pros and cons of the Internet as a device of social change, of private versus public domain, and of the instantly gratifying means of media dissemination.

I think I want the killer robots back.