DARPA to Invest Billions in 'Third Wave' AI

Still think all the hype around AI and Machine Learning is ... well ... hype? Consider the announcement from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of its plan to invest $2 billion in what the agency aims to define as a "third-wave" of AI technologies.

The money is earmarked for a new, multi-year campaign, dubbed "AI Next," which the agency unveiled officially during its D60 Symposium, held this week at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. The purpose of this new, large-scale effort, the agency said, is to address "limitations" of so-called first and second wave AI technologies.

DARPA, which is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, began conducting research in the 1960s that played a significant role in shaping that first wave of AI tech, which was based on "handcrafted knowledge, or rule-based systems capable of narrowly defined tasks." The 1990s saw a second wave of innovation that led to the creation of statistical pattern recognizers from large amounts of data. During that period, the agency's funding of natural language understanding, problem solving, navigation, and perception technologies were foundational to a host of innovations -- everything from self-driving cars and personal digital assistants to near-natural prosthetics and some critical and valuable military applications.

But, innovative as this second-wave tech has allowed developers to be, DARPA maintains, it suffers from some inherent flaws: it's dependent on large amounts of high-quality training data, it doesn't adapt to changing conditions, it offers only limited performance guarantees, and it's unable to provide users with explanations of results. With this new, well-funded initiative, DARPA will be able to explore new theories and applications that could make it possible for machines to adapt to changing situations, the agency stated. "DARPA sees this next generation of AI as a third wave of technological advance, one of contextual adaptation."

Agency director Dr. Steven Walker unveiled AI Next at the D60 Symposium, which marked the agency's 60th anniversary, during his closing remarks.

"With AI Next, we are making multiple research investments aimed at transforming computers from specialized tools to partners in problem-solving," Walker said. "Today, machines lack contextual reasoning capabilities, and their training must cover every eventuality, which is not only costly, but ultimately impossible. We want to explore how machines can acquire human-like communication and reasoning capabilities, with the ability to recognize new situations and environments and adapt to them."

The agency plans to issue "multiple" announcements around the AI Next campaign over the next year. It will focus initially on automating Department of Defense business tasks -- things like security clearance vetting and increasing the security of machine learning tech. The agency plans to leverage its new Artificial Intelligence Exploration (AIE) program, a rapid-release framework designed to enable DARPA "to go from idea inception to exploration in fewer than 90 days."

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at